Pens-Habs Episode 1: Here we go again

It's kind of funny. Two months ago, almost to the day, this entire country was reveling in Sidney Crosby's glory. Having scored the game winning goal in overtime, in the gold medal game at the Olympics, Crosby was Canada's darling, Canada's hero... Canada's savior.

Today, at least two Canadian cities have turned their back on the Canadian hero. First, Crosby was the star of the series when he and the Penguins took out the Ottawa Senators. 5 goals and 14 points later, Crosby leads the scoring race in the playoffs.

And with game one of the second round slowly approaching, millions of Montrealers will make Sidney Crosby their enemy, as their beloved Canadiens take to the ice against the defending Stanley Cup Champions, in their bid to STOP a repeat (three-peat of making the cup finals) from happening.

Easier said than done of course.

And almost as funny as what's sure to be a complete 180 by Montreal fans on Sidney Crosby, is the fact that, once again, for the second series in a row, no one is giving the Canadiens a chance. All the naysayers predicted that the Capitals would either sweep the series or take it in 5 games. Well, look what happened. We all know the saying ''anything can happen'' in the playoffs, and we all know it's one of the biggest clichés in sports, but in this case, the saying definitely applied, and it will have a good chance to continue applying as the Canadiens take on the Penguins.

While most have accepted the fact that the Canadiens can likely take a game or even 2 or 3 from the Penguins, you'd be hard pressed to find a legitimate predictions that says the Canadiens will win the series. Hell, I'm one of the people that doesn't believe the Canadiens will win this series, predicting the Pens to take it in 6.

The major difference? After seeing what the Habs accomplished in round 1, led by Jaroslav Halak, Mike Cammalleri, Hal Gill and all the others, I believe they CAN take this series.

If they play like they did in games 5 to 7 last week, that is.

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CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

Unfortunately for the Canadiens, there is a major difference between ''CAN'' and ''WILL'', and there is a very limited chance that a player with many veterans, and a goalie that faced a whopping 239 shots in only 342 minutes of play, can keep up the pace that led them past the league's best offensive team.

As a whole, the Canadiens blocked an incredible 182 shots (over 30 per game). Hal Gill had the most with 31 (5.15 per game), followed by Josh Gorges with 20 (3.33 per game), Roman Hamrlik (19), Andrei Markov (18) and Ryan O'Byrne (13). All these shots take their tolls on players, on their bodies, especially their legs, and with 7 games played over the course of 13 days, you have to think that the wear and tear is going to start taking its toll on some of these players.

The player Habs fans might have to be most worried about is Jaroslav Halak. As mentioned above, Halak faced nearly 40 shots against per game last series, and had to stand on his head to make a lot of the saves he did. He's shown before that while there's obviously nothing wrong with his conditions, after a few performances like the ones we saw against the Capitals, he might start getting tired. Hell, if you ask me, we saw it in games 2 and 3 of the first round, that led to Carey Price's start in game 4.

Can the defense, as well as Jaroslav Halak, keep up their pace in order for the Canadiens to stand any sort of chance against the Penguins?

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MARCH OF THE PENGUINS

Another concern that Canadiens fans may have going into this series is what the Penguins took in from watching the Canadiens take care of the Caps in 7 games. You have to think they were watching that game 7, and taking plenty of notes. This being a team that has gone to the dance in the last 2 years, a team with plenty of experience and plenty of accomplishments among them, they know how to beat just about anyone.

Obviously, the Capitals weren't ready for the Canadiens. Frankly I don't think they would have been ready for any team. They're going to take what the Canadiens did to them, do some soul searching over the summer and come back fiercer, angrier, and more motivated to win.

But the Penguins know how to win. They know how it feels to win the cup. They're winners, they don't back down and they're going to want a taste of victory once again.

Add this to the fact that the Penguins are obviously a more balanced team than the Capitals were, and the Habs will definitely have their hands full. If they stand any chance of winning, they're going to have to play 7 perfect games.

No mistakes, no sitting back, no lazy plays or lapses in judgment. Once again, easier said than done. But it is feasible.

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Players to look out for this series, on both sides:

1- Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez: Anyone who watched the first round series against the Capitals might be surprised to find out that Gomez and Gionta only combined for 3 goals and 5 assists through the first 7 games of the playoffs. These two were all over the ice in the first round and seemingly proved their worth to their team. But they were shown up by Plekanec and Cammalleri in the goal department. Expect them to have a good series as the Penguins attempt to shut down Cammalleri.

2- Sidney Crosby: Canadian team killer, loves playing north of the border, especially at the Bell Centre and Montreal, a city he saw a lot of growing up. He will also want to keep tabs on the scoring race, and with a fairly big lead in that department already, he's going to want to keep things that way.

3- Marc-André Fleury: Quebec-born goaltender playing against the Canadiens, looking to rebound for a poor performance in the first round. Need I say more?

4- Hal Gill: Gill is coming off one of the best playoff series I've ever seen him play, if not THE best series he's player. He's the type of player that gets a lot of negative attention from the fans and media, but proves his worth in the playoffs. And he needs to continue proving his worth with every passing shift, it seems. Add this to the fact that he's matched up against his former team, a team he left not even a year ago, and he could play one of the biggest roles in this series.

5- Jaroslav Halak: For obvious reasons, but also to look out for how endurance and with how much he can keep up. Can he survive another 53 save performance, if it comes down to that?

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Do they Canadiens have an edge? They do. Their goaltending may be better as a whole, despite Fleury's pedigree, and it is at least more consistent. On defense, they've proven they can shut down the best offensive players and everyone from 1 to 7 and even the 8th defensemen for the Canadiens can contribute. The Penguins have Orpik, Gonchar, McKee and Goligoski, among others, but I think the Pens will be surprised when it comes to the Canadiens defense. Obviously the Penguins have the edge up front with Crosby and Malkin, but the Canadiens have a balanced offense, and nearly everyone has contributed to the Canadiens' success in the playoffs thus far. The edge in terms of forwards may not be as expansive as it seems.

Where the Penguins rise above the rest is the success their players have had in the last 2 years. But the intangible here is certainly what this group of Habs can do when everyone is performing at their best.

The chances that the Canadiens have at winning this series are obviously low. You don't have to be a genius to figure that one out. But after what the Canadiens did to the Capitals, you have to at least give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to making this series interesting.

All that being said, I still think the Penguins are too complete and experienced a team to fall to the Canadiens. But I also think the Canadiens, if they stick to Jacques Martin's game plan and play the style they did in the last series, will at least be able to win a few games.

Pens in 6.

Game 1 goes tonight at 7 at the Mellon Arena, and yes, Canadian fans have to endure Bob Cole and Greg Millen on CBC if they want to watch this series in english, and Benoit Brunet if they're watching in French. Thankfully game 2 is on NBC.

Enjoy it, and keep an eye on TCL for all the coverage you need, as well as, potentially, a few live blogs on the way over the weekend and beyond!

For an alternative look at the series, from a Penguins' point of view, check out this article at Hockey Independent by my buddy Penguins March.

Prax
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