Thursday, July 29, 2010

NHL 2010 Playoffs: Montreal Canadiens Upset Pens in Round Two

From True/Slant on May 13, 2010:

Montreal Canadiens Knock the Crown Off the Pittsburgh Penguins and Dance On

Image by Getty Images North America via Daylife
The end of the line was more brutal, bloodier and more horrifying than “Friday the 13th” or “Jaws” or “Halloween.” The defending Stanley Cup Champs were not only felled by the Montreal Canadiens, but they willingly, knowingly rushed headlong into Freddy Kruger. They gave themselves a full-body moisturizing treatment with chum before diving into shark infested waters. It was as though Jamie Lee Curtis had offered herself up to Michael Myers for death and dismemberment. The final game in the old barn called Mellon Arena was the hockey equivalent of a team hoisting itself on its own petard.

All credit to Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens. They got in the Penguins heads. It was something no other team has been able to do in the Sidney Crosby era. It’s not to say the Pens were unbeatable in that time. Clearly, they were not. But Sid’s team had never been self-defeating and self-defeated before. This was largely the same team that was so cool going into Game 7 in the second round versus the Capital last year, and then Game 7 of the Cup Finals against the Red Wings. Mentally, they could not be beaten. Until this series, until last night, until the Canadiens. The Pens hit a mental wall. To say nothing of the Halak wall in net.

The players they most needed to step up were nowhere to be found.

Sid was, once again, neutralized.

Geno seemed almost afraid to put the puck on Halak. At one point, he put a shot on net which Halak pulled in like they were playing pitch and catch, and Malkin just dropped his head. Defeated.

Brooks Orpik had only three hits and none of those were of the tooth-rattling, glass-shattering variety that are his trademark.

Sergei Gonchar made two heinous non-plays on the puck. They weren’t technically turnovers, but more like apathy toward the puck and the Hab player in front of him.

Flower. Oh, poor Flower.

On the other side, the Canadiens did everything they wanted to do and they did it to perfection.

Brian Gionta put two more in net, proving that he is still a burr under the Pens saddles. (Do penguins have saddles? Can you saddle a penguin? Gionta can.) Mike Cammalleri added a goal and assisted on another, continue to be the best player in this series. Well, the best player not named Jaroslav Halak. The defense blocked shots, altered shots, deflected shots and shrunk available passing lanes so as to be so tiny they were not visible to the human eye.

Everybody is calling this Montreal team a Cinderella, but after watching them closely for two rounds of hockey, they don’t look like a Cinderella to me. This team is not winning on flukey, lucky plays. (Okay, a bit of luck is involved, but a bit of luck is always needed for any team to advance this far in the charnel house known as the Stanley Cup playoffs.) This Canadiens group plays with the chemistry of Fred and Ginger on the dance floor and the attitude of the Bad News Bears. They were unimpressed by the hype and laser shot of Ovie and anything but intimidated by the pedigree of the defending Stanley Cup Champs.

Of course, one player is more responsible for the Canadiens miracle run than the others and too much cannot be said about the brilliance of Halak. They could have played another eight periods of hockey last night and the Pens would not have been able to get three more goals behind him. He’s quick, with a great glove and a great blocker pad. You can’t get a shot under him, either. He is almost impenetrable. But what’s most amazing about Halak is his vision. The Habs put two and three of their defenders in front of their net minder, to say nothing of Billy Guerin or Matt Cooke loafing there, so Halak is looking through a minimum of two other players to see a a small disc of vulcanized rubber flying toward him.

Any NHL caliber goalie can do that for one game. Sometimes, goalies can get in a zone like that. But to do that for 14 games? Against the likes of Crosby and Malkin, Ovechkin and Knuble? That’s an other-wordly zone, a whole other solar-system of a zone. Without exaggeration, it’s one of the greatest performances from a goaltender I’ve ever seen. And despite the fact that I wanted the Penguins to mount The Most Improbable Comeback Ever, by the end, I was really enjoying watching Halak work. That kind of excellence takes my breath away.

Last year, after Fleury had put in a particularly stellar performance, I compared him to a great mushroom hunter with his eyes on. That is to say, a person skilled in foraging for mushrooms can spot the elusive little fungi in areas that seem like a homogeneous visual plain to the untrained eye. Where I see leaves and tangled branches and such, a good mushroom hunter can edit the field of vision to spot the mushrooms. It’s an evolutionary adaptation known as “the pop-out effect.” I think Halak is the living embodiment of the pop-out effect right now. I can hardly wait to see what can do to Mike Richards or Patrice Bergeron.

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