It seems like only two weeks ago this column space was reserved for the seventh game between the Washington Capital and Montreal Canadiens. It was. In that seventh game, Montreal knocked off the Presidents' Trophy winning Caps in dramatic fashion to a chorus of "how did they do that"s from the hockey world. Now, can they victimize the defending Stanley Cup champions?
Capitals Penguins should win:
• They're the better team, with 13 more points earned during the regular season. They went 3-1 against the Habs in that same regular season.
• They've got better players overall. Whether it be Sidney Crosby, arguably the best player in the National Hockey League (and the world), or Evgeni Malkin, the reigning Conn Smythe Award winner, the Penguins just have more talent.
• The Penguins have got Marc-Andre Fleury in nets, who by all accounts stole two games for the Penguins in games three and five, posting a shut-out in the former. His career up until last year's final had been questioned along with his ability to win big games. He has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he can come up bigger than most goaltenders in those situations.
• They're more battle-tested, having won the Cup last year, having been through two game sevens a year ago (against Washington and the Detroit Red Wings in the final). This year's edition of the Penguins is largely the same as last year's team that came back from a three-games-to-two deficit against Detroit.
• They're healthy. Despite an injury sustained to Jordan Staal in game one of this series, he was able to miraculously make it back into the line-up for game four (without human growth hormone, I'm told). Montreal, conversely, isn't healthy. Superstar defenseman Andrei Markov, Montreal's best all-around player all things being equal, was injured in game one, sustaining a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL; I looked it up!). Fellow defenseman Hal Gill, who has been a pillar on the blue line for the Habs, took Chris Kunitz's skate blade deep into his leg in game five. He missed game six as a result. He remains a game-time decision for tonight.
• The two teams have alternated wins in the series, with the Penguins taking games one, three, and five. If you believe in that kind of stuff, game seven should be Pittsburgh's turn to win.
Why the Canadiens could win:
• It's the playoffs and anything, as proven by their upset of the Capitals, can happen, especially in a one-game scenario.
• Montreal possesses streaky players, none streakier than Michael Cammalleri, who currently leads the league in goals in the playoffs with 11. Prior to the playoffs, he was held scoreless in his nine games played since returning from injury. Unless his hot streak runs suddenly cold tonight, he is capable of playing with the Crosbys and Malkins of the league.
• The Penguins have got Marc-Andre Fleury in nets, who by all accounts was a big factor in Montreal's three wins in the series. He was just alright in game two, but was unable to come up with a big save when his team needed one, was horrible in game four, letting in several questionable goals, and was again just alright in game six. Despite winning it all last year, his inconsistency in nets has been a problem during these playoffs, and, one can guess, will continue to be throughout his career.
• The Canadiens have Jaroslav "All Hail" Halak, who almost singlehandedly eliminated the Capitals in the first round and has done near the same against the Penguins. Not many around the league have heard about this guy for the simple reason that the Habs were clearly hoping that Carey Price would be the one to step into the shoes of Patrick Roy. Halak hasn't even officially been named the team's number-one goaltender yet, but, rest assured, he is the epitome of consistency and is capable of playing under pressure, as he has demonstrated time and time again in Montreal over the past few years. If the playoffs would have ended yesterday night, he would have won the Conn Smythe Trophy. Unfortunately, they didn't and he hasn't won anything yet.
• While the return of Jaroslav Spacek into the line-up is relative cause for celebration, it is the discovery of P.K. Subban and the admirable way he has filled in for Markov that has been the story for Montreal's defensive corps. Call it youthful ignorance to the circumstances around him or simple talent, but he has actually played better than Markov had been playing at the time of his injury. While the Habs are not as healthy as they would like, they have made do just fine.
• Montreal is also relatively battle-tested, having just come back from a three-games-to-one deficit against the Capitals in the first round of the playoffs. The Canadiens also staved off elimination against the Penguins in game six and are now 4-0 in elimination games this post-season. Pittsburgh hasn't played one yet. Also, defenseman Hal Gill, who played with Pittsburgh last year during the team's Cup run, currently plays for Montreal. It remains to be seen if he will play tonight, though, after sustaining a deep cut to his leg in game five.
• The two teams have alternated wins at Mellon Arena, with the Canadiens taking game two. If you believe in that kind of stuff, game seven should be Montreal's turn to win.
I've made it quite clear that I am a Montrealer and a Habs fan, so there would be a clear-cut conflict of interest if I were to make a prediction for tonight's game. To quote local columnist Jack Todd, the head says Pens, while the heart says Habs. As a journalism grad, I will go with my head, unfortunately.
Bold Prediction: Penguins 3, Canadiens 2, with Pittsburgh's game-winning goal coming with under five minutes to go in the game.