Halak Stars As Habs Tie Series with Pens

During a hockey game where the pace was that of molasses slow dripping out of a jar, the Montreal Canadiens managed to stifle and beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, 3-1, to tie their Eastern Conference semifinal series at 1-1. More importantly, with the win, the Habs have stolen home-ice advantage from the Pens as the series now shifts to Montreal where the frenzied Bell Centre crowd awaits.

As much as yesterday’s game was dull, it was precisely the type of game that the Canadiens wanted to play against the more skilled Penguins. The Canadiens clogged the neutral zone, generally kept the Pens to the outside, shut down their power play—then Pens went 0-for-3 for the game—and Halak shone to earn the Canadiens the win.

The Penguins frustration was evident as Crosby threw his broken stick and Craig Adams was given a 5-minute major and a game misconduct for hitting Marc-Andre Bergeron from behind, with less than four minutes left to play. Adams will undoubtedly have a date with the NHL’s discipline office and I would expect him to get a one or two game suspension.

The Penguins’ lone goal was scored by Matt Cooke and the Canadiens responded with Michael Cammalleri—he scored two—and Brian Gionta.

Notes

The Halak Attack is back

After getting shelled for five goals on 20 shots in Game 1, Jaroslav Halak bounced back with a vengeance. Rediscovering his form from the series against the Capitals, Halak turned aside 38 of the 39 shots he faced for a sizzling .974 save percentage.

It is no coincidence that Halak’s bounce back came during a game in which the Pens got 39 shots on net—versus the 20 they had on his last game. Halak’s record when facing 35 or more shot this season is now at 15-1-2. When facing 40 or more shots, it is at a frightening 10-0-1. This guy simply needs to be busy and excels while being barraged. Maybe the opposition should try not to shoot as much as they’d likely have a better chance of winning.

Cammalleri continues to be a leader on the ice for the Habs

With two more goals last night, Cammalleri pushed his playoff point total to 13. His eight goals and five assists over nine playoff games put him third overall in playoff league scoring—one point behind San Jose’s Joe Pavelski (14 points) and three points behind Sidney Crosby (16 points). More importantly, Cammalleri continues to score important and timely goals as his two game winners and his five power play points demonstrate. As much as he took flak for being ineffective during the playoffs for Calgary last year, Cammalleri is showing this year that he can carry a team offensively.

The system is the answer

It might be boring and it might be antiquated, but Jacques Martin’s system works when his players commit to it. And as much as Halak shone during yesterday’s game, the Habs got back to the game plan that brought them success against the Caps.

That system is the one where the Canadiens do an excellent job collapsing down low, keeping shooters to the outside or the point, do a good job of clearing the front of the net, and generally speaking limit the number of second chances and rebounds.

This hermetic defensive system coupled with an opportunistic offense that scores on the power play and takes advantage of turnovers and giveaways, is how the Canadiens roared back to beat the Caps in Round One. This same formula worked in Game 2 against the Pens and it was what was missing from the first game where the Habs looked too slow and tired to execute. It will be interesting to see how the Pens adapt their play for Game Three in Montreal.

Speaking of system, those who do not follow are banished

Another component of Jacques Martin’s system — at least during the playoffs — is that he is rewarding players who buy-in and punishing those who don’t. The Pens goal last night was caused by horrible defensive zone coverage by the Habs fourth line of Ben Maxwell, Mathieu Darche, and Andrei Kostitsyn. AK46 in particular completely missed his assignment and it lead to Matt Cooke streaking in alone to score on Halak.

The fourth line saw a total of two shifts during the first period and none for the rest of the game. You think they got the message?

A Look Ahead…

As much as the Habs commitment to their system won out over the skill of the Pens last night, Pittsburgh is known to be a team that can adapt well. It will be interesting to see what tweaks Coach Bylsma makes for Game 3 in Montreal. Given that they will be on the road where the Habs get the last line change, it might be more difficult for them to gain an advantage over the Habs system.

That being said, I fully expect a frustrated Crosby to take his game to another level. While he looked tired at times during Game Two, Crosby is the best player in the world and will not lose without a fight.

For the Habs, expect Jaroslav Spacek to be back in the lineup on Tuesday in Montreal. His return combined with the excellently poised play of rookie P.K. Subban should buoy the Habs defense enough to survive the loss of Andrei Markov, who is out for the remainder of the playoffs.

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