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Sunday, May 2, 2010
Habs' resolve no longer a surprise

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- They may be undermanned and undersized, and for all we know, they may be undernourished and underdressed, but people will never, ever question the will of the Montreal Canadiens.

One game after being waxed 6-3 and losing their best defenseman, Andrei Markov, to injury, the gutsy Habs absorbed wave after wave of Pittsburgh Penguins attacks to even their Eastern Conference semifinals series with a 3-1 win in Game 2 on Sunday afternoon.

"I couldn't think more of Andrei as a player. It just reiterates how this is the consummate team sport," said scoring machine Mike Cammalleri, who notched his seventh and eighth goals of the postseason Sunday afternoon. "It's never about one guy or one player; it's about how the team plays as a group."

It doesn't matter how often we try to draw a line from one game to the next, to suggest A necessarily leads to B; the Canadiens keep charting their own improbable path through this postseason.

One game after giving up four power-play goals on four Pittsburgh chances, the Canadiens blanked the Penguins on three man-advantage situations, all but six seconds of which took place in the third period.

One game after being pulled for allowing five goals on 20 shots, Jaroslav "Water Off A Duck's" Halak was back to his magical ways, turning aside 38 of 39 shots.

"It was a tough start for whole team," Halak said. "I needed to be better; I knew that. I think the guys knew that they need to step up. We did that tonight."

The Slovak netminder, whose future in Montreal has been a running sideshow this season given the battle between him and Carey Price for the No. 1 job, has shown an incredible ability to follow up the ordinary with the extraordinary.

After outshooting the Penguins 12-9 in the first period, the Canadiens were outshot 30-9 the rest of the way. Halak made pad saves, he grabbed pucks in traffic, he took a hard Chris Kunitz shot off the head, and he stopped a nifty Tyler Kennedy turnaround shot in the third. For the final 55:22 of Game 2, Halak was impenetrable.

Someone asked when he knew he was in "the zone." Halak paused.

"After we won the game," he said. "You never know. It could go in with a bad bounce, but thank God it didn't go in."

Overall in the playoffs, the Canadiens have been outshot 134-70 in the third period, and yet here they are, heading back to Montreal for Game 3 on Tuesday all tied up against the defending Stanley Cup champs.

"Obviously, everybody is looking forward to go home, especially with a split, you know," Halak said. "This is a tough building to play in. Going home with a split, it's great for us. I think fans are going to be on our side from the first faceoff."

You think?

When the Canadiens were en route to upsetting the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in the first round, some Montreal media began to draw comparisons between Halak's performances and legendary playoff performances of Habs greats like Patrick Roy or Ken Dryden.

That may be a bit hyperbolic, since Halak has appeared in just 11 playoff games in his NHL career, but there are suddenly some similarities to the Habs' Cup-winning teams from 1986 and 1993. During those championship runs, the Habs were often the underdogs. They were often outshot and outplayed. Yet with Roy turning in dominant performances almost every night, the Canadiens seemed to possess a quiet calm that allowed them to simply seize whatever moments were presented them and not worry about the rest.

This team has displayed the same kind of calm throughout the playoffs. That calm was on display yet again Sunday.

The Penguins opened the scoring just 4:38 into the game on a nice Maxime Talbot pass to Matt Cooke, who had snuck in behind the Montreal defense. The Canadiens tied it on a Brian Gionta goal, thanks to a deft no-look, backhand pass from behind the Pittsburgh net by Scott Gomez. The Penguins, however, roared out of the gate in the second period, controlling the play, dominating puck possession and keeping the Habs hemmed in their own zone for long periods of time.

The Canadiens, meanwhile, did not register their first shot on goal until the period was 7½ minutes old. That shot happened to find the back of the Pittsburgh net as Mike Cammalleri neatly batted an in-air puck past Marc-Andre Fleury after it had popped up off his skate. The goal gave the Habs a 2-1 lead, a lead that would stand up the rest of the way.

"That's playoff hockey; that's why you have to execute," Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said. "That is what the game comes down to, ultimately. We paid the price for not doing that today. It wasn't a lack of effort, a lack of not preparing or anything like that. Our focus was there. We've just got to make sure we are hungry around that net and find a way to put it in."

Cammalleri said there is enough maturity on the Canadiens' bench that, even if they are getting outshot or out-chanced, they don't deviate from their game plan.

"We don't think panicking is going to do us any good," Cammalleri said. "We don't want to sit back and get outshot 2-to-1, but we're OK with it as long as we get away the Grade-A chances and are able to make good plays of our own."

To follow this pattern night in and night out against teams like Washington and Pittsburgh seems to be courting disaster, although the Habs have been able to avoid that.

"At the same time, we want to keep pushing," Cammalleri said. "We want skate more with the puck. We want to skate the puck out of our end more. We want to hang onto it in their end more, for sure. It's not something that we're just saying, 'We're OK with it; we're going to play this way the rest of the way.' No."

If the outcome was disappointing to the Penguins, it wasn't necessarily surprising. Hey, they have video machines and the Internet; they have seen what Halak is capable of.

"We expected them to play like this and to have games like this in this series," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.

He insisted his team wasn't frustrated, but there were signs Sunday. Like when Crosby slammed his stick against Montreal's goalpost in the second period, breaking it in two and throwing one half of it toward the end boards.

Game 2 also represented the first test for both teams in learning to live without key personnel who were injured in Game 1. The Habs found a way to deny the Penguins in the absence of Markov, who is likely lost for the series, if not the season, with a knee injury. The Penguins, meanwhile, were without Jordan Staal, who had surgery to repair a sliced tendon on his foot. He is listed as day-to-day, but it would be a shock if he returned during this series.

Talbot took Staal's place on the team's shut-down line and played well in setting up Cooke for the Penguins' only goal. But Game 2 marked the second straight game in this series in which Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both failed to score. (Neither had a point in Game 2.)

In short, when it looked as though the Penguins were a sure bet to win the first big test of wills in this series, it was the Canadiens who showed they have plenty of ammunition in the will department. Not that we should be all that surprised at this point.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.