PITTSBURGH (AP) — First the Capitals, now the Penguins. The Canadiens, the worst-record team in the playoffs, keep sending home the NHL’s best.
Brian Gionta had two power-play goals, Mike Cammalleri scored his seventh goal of a series in which he upstaged Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Montreal built a stunning four-goal lead before beating the Penguins 5-2 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Wednesday night.
Believe it, Canadiens. Disbelieve it, Penguins.
Montreal, about the last team anyone would have picked to beat the top-seeded Capitals, much less the reigning NHL champion Penguins, accomplished what no team has done since the current playoffs format was adopted in 1994. And that’s beat the Presidents’ Trophy winner and Stanley Cup champion in successive rounds as an eighth-seeded team.
“We played Washington and we were supposed to get killed and we played these guys and we were supposed to get killed,” defenseman Hal Gill said. “It’s nice to be part of a team that gets things done.”
When it ended, the Canadiens crowded around goalie Jaroslav Halak, who made 37 saves in a performance not quite as dominating as that in Montreal’s 2-1 elimination win of Washington but one that shut down the NHL’s oldest arena.
The Canadiens move on to the Eastern Conference finals against Boston or Philadelphia. The Flyers beat the Bruins 2-1 on Wednesday night to force Game 7.
“I don’t claim we’re this great team, I don’t claim we’re perfect and I don’t claim that everything we do is on purpose,” Cammalleri said. “I think we’re just finding ways to win.”
The Canadiens, who trailed the series 3-2 before winning 4-3 in Game 6, silenced the standing room crowd of 17,132 in the last game played at 49-year-old Mellon Arena by seizing a 1-0 lead on Gionta’s power-play goal only 32 seconds into the game. The Canadiens built it to 4-0 with barely 25 minutes gone.
“I was stunned,” Crosby said of his penalty for driving Josh Gorges into the boards. “I don’t know how that’s a penalty 10 seconds into the game.”
Dominic Moore made it 2-0 later in the period and Cammalleri scored his playoff-leading 12th goal at 3:32 of the second.
“Who would expect it? Nobody gave us a chance and here we are,” Halak said.
The tone was set when Crosby drew his penalty — it was the Penguins who couldn’t make plays, made the wrong decisions, stood around as Montreal skated past them.
“It’s definitely disappointing,” Crosby said. “Game 7, anything can happen and, unfortunately, we weren’t at our best.”
When Travis Moen scored on a short-handed breakaway by skating past defenseman Sergei Gonchar and wristing a shot past Marc-Andre Fleury, it was 4-0 with 14:46 remaining in the second. Effectively, it was over.
It was for Fleury, the Game 7 star of last year’s finals against Detroit. He was pulled after giving up four goals on 13 shots, and Brent Johnson finished up.
Chris Kunitz and Jordan Staal beat Halak later in the second period. But Halak turned aside Crosby 25 seconds into the third period as the teams skated 4-on-3, perhaps the biggest of Halak’s saves.
Montreal made it 5-2 when Gionta got his second of the game, and seventh in the playoffs, with 10 minutes remaining.
The Canadiens ran out the clock and, following the traditional handshakes, many fans remained to watch a video tribute to the nation’s first and only retractable roof indoor arena. Mellon Arena is expected to be torn down, sometime after the Penguins move across the street into Consol Energy Center.
“We’ve been talking about a lot, ‘Let’s make sure we play the last game at this rink,'” Cammalleri said. “That’s a cool piece of history for us.”
This wasn’t the way the Penguins wanted to go out.
Maybe they simply didn’t believe a team like the Canadiens could do it, much like the Capitals couldn’t. Maybe it was fatigue — the Penguins have played 300-plus games the last three seasons, advancing to the finals in 2008 and winning them in 2009. While they did, they’ve enjoyed only two calendar months without hockey since September 2008.
“I’m not going to sit here and complain about playing in Stanley Cup finals and Olympic gold medal games, that’s a good problem to have and you’ve got to deal with it,” Crosby said.
Crosby and Malkin were handcuffed throughout the series by Montreal’s suffocating, turnover-forcing defense.
Gill, injured for Game 6 but back for Game 7, was on the ice for nearly every Crosby shift, and the NHL’s regular season goal scoring co-leader managed only one goal in seven games. So did Malkin, even though Montreal played the final six games without its top defenseman, Andrei Markov (knee).
“They beat Washington, now they beat us,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “I think it’s time to give this team some credit for what they’ve done, rather than picking apart why we didn’t do what we were supposed to do.”
NOTES: The Penguins were 2-0 in Game 7s during their Stanley Cup run last season, winning both on the road. … Montreal is 13-8 in Game 7s, Pittsburgh is 7-5. … The Canadiens also played the first game in Mellon Arena, then known as the Civic Arena, winning 2-1 on Oct. 11, 1967. … Pittsburgh also lost Game 7s at home after leading 3-2 in 1993 (Islanders) and 1996 (Panthers).