As the dust settles on a wild first round in the Eastern Conference of the NHL where three upsets occurred, it’s time to look forward to the second.
The most intriguing of these matchups will feature the Montreal Canadiens, fresh off their upset of the top-ranked Washington Capitals, and the Pittsburgh Penguins, the only top-seed in the East to dodge the upset bug when they beat the Ottawa Senators in six.
Pittsburgh won the season series 3-1, including a 6-1 win in Pittsburgh, in which Pens captain Sidney Crosby notched his first hat trick of the season. The playoff version of the matchup begins Friday night in Pittsburgh.
The hockey world is still buzzing over Montreal’s dismissal of the Washington Capitals from round 1. Goaltender Jaroslav Halak was absolutely marvelous in net and will need to continue that kind of play if his team will have a chance to extend their improbable run. His defense will have its hands full yet again, this time with Pittsburgh’s star forwards Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Hal Gill was very effective in shutting down Alexander Ovechkin for the second straight playoffs (as an ex-Penguin he was Ovechkin’s shadow when the Pens knocked off the Caps last season), and will likely be tasked with shutting down his former teammate Crosby. This should prove more difficult than defending Ovechkin since Crosby is much better at using the players around him.
Montreal will also face problems on offense which were not exposed in Round 1. Pittsburgh’s defense and goaltending are both upgrades over the Capitals’. Through the season, Montreal often struggled to score goals which nearly kept them out of the playoffs. To have a chance at beating the Penguins, they will need to capitalize on their few scoring chances and hope Halak will be able to stand on his head to keep another powerful offensive team off the scoreboard.
Unlike Washington, New Jersey, and Buffalo, Pittsburgh managed to avoid being upset in the first round, meaning their fans will not have to trade in their NHL tickets for greens fees anytime soon. Despite looking shaky at times against the Senators, the Penguins showed through their discipline and resilience in Game 6 why they are still serious Cup contenders. Crosby led his team out of the first round with a career-best 14 points in the series. All signs point to his strong play continuing, including his six points in four games against Montreal in the regular season. The high-powered Penguins offense will have to find a way to solve the brick wall that is Halak, but this team does have a history of beating a hot goaltender.
Montreal showed that it can be successful with little offense, which will put pressure on the Penguins’ defensemen to limit the Habs’ scoring chances and keep the pressure off Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury had a slow start in the Ottawa series, but found his game as the series progressed and, in the end, did enough to give his offense a chance to win games. He will have to limit his mistakes, especially with the way his opposite number is playing.
Montreal’s defense played extraordinarily well against the Capitals, but will have more trouble with Pittsburgh’s less individualistic and more balanced attack. Big Hal Gill will not have the luxury of clinging to one player, as the Penguins’ ability to move the puck will expose his lack of motion, giving Pittsburgh’s top offensive line plenty of scoring chances. While Halak has been great up to now, no one can save everything. Pittsburgh’s defense, which was good enough to get past Ottawa, will again be good enough to shut down the Canadiens. Penguins in five.