Sidney Crosby may be unlikeable. He may be a whiner who yaps constantly and looks at the refs in disbelief whenever he thinks he should have drawn a penalty. He may get away with murder, relative to other players who pull the same stunts, and his behaviour may raise the ire of every hockey fan in the world who doesn't cheer for the Penguins or...once every four years...Team Canada. All of those things may be true, but it's also true that Sidney Crosby is not a stupid man.
Crosby knows Hal Gill. He won the Cup with him last season, and he knew last night that if he ragged the puck just enough in Gill's corner, the big guy would eventually get penalized. Gill doesn't hit guys to take them out of the play. He sort of squishes them against the boards and tries to poke the puck away from them. If that kind of play goes on too long, especially if the player being squished appears to be struggling to get his arms free, it's often going to draw a holding penalty. That's what Crosby knew as the second period wound down, and that's exactly what happened. Crosby also knew there was a good chance an end-of-period scrum would end up taking another Hab off the ice with Gill. He was instrumental in stirring up trouble around Halak's net as the siren sounded. Sure enough, the refs decided to hand out out some minutes to cool guys off. It was Crosby's good fortune (surprise, surprise) that the officials picked Gorges to send to the box, instead of Hamrlik. Missing both their best penalty killers, and facing the Penguins heavy artillery with fresh legs in the third, the inevitable happened and the Pens scored the only goal they needed, all because Crosby knows how to work the officials. No, whatever else you can say about him, he's no dummy.
Still, despite the final score, this game proved the Habs can actually win this series. The difference in the outcome last night came down to a near-miss by Cammalleri and a crossbar by Max Lapierre in the first period. It was one of the few times in these playoffs that the Habs' modus operendi: start hard and fast and capitalize with an early goal, didn't work out for them. If either of those close calls had gone in, the game would have had a very different look. It all turned on a stroke of luck, and that says the Habs weren't desperately overwhelmed by a more skilled team. They just didn't get a bounce.
That said, they needed to keep up the level of intensity they showed in the first period for more than just that opening twenty minutes. The only way to score that crucial first goal is to keep pressing. This is what concerns me. The Habs didn't slack off on the forecheck because they stopped trying. They just, simply, ran out of gas. They poured their effort into trying to get that early goal, then they had little left to throw at the Pens when the defending champs pushed back.
As the series wears on, the Canadiens will get tireder, earlier, as they continue to play every game shorthanded. A team like the Habs must use all its available assets if it's going to compete with a balanced Penguins squad. Martin's decision to dress Mathieu Darche, yet again, over Sergei Kostitsyn, then keep Darche on the bench for the entire game was frustrating to watch. I'm the first to agree Kostitsyn is an inconsistent player and you never know if you're going to get the guy who's flying, making brilliant passes and killing penalties, or the one who's giving the puck away at his own blueline and backing off from checks. The thing is, you at least have a chance of getting the good version if he's actually on the ice. Kostitsyn in the pressbox and Darche on the bench does nothing to help the team. It doesn't hurt it, either, but that's typical of Martin's no-risk style of coaching. I'm not sure if he actually can't stand Sergei Kostitsyn to the point where he's willing to wear out his other players just to avoid giving him any ice time, although there's some evidence to that effect. I suspect, though, the issue is more that Martin fears Sergei's blunders will put the team in a hole. At this point, with guys hurt and others tired, the world's most boring coach is going to have to take the risk and hope Sergei can bring something fresh to the lineup. You can't coach afraid in the playoffs.
It's also time for Andrei Kostitsyn to return to the Plekanec line for more than a shift or two. Kostitysn, like his brother, is irritatingly inconsistent. He's one of those players with tremendous skills who doesn't seem to have the smarts to use them properly. He did look alive last night, though, and as a streaky player, the coaches have to keep a close eye on him for signs he's heating up. When that happens, he needs good, offensive-minded linemates to work with. Moen's been playing on the Plekanec line because it's been assigned to shut down Crosby, and AK can't be trusted with a defensive assignment. But without scoring wingers, Plekanec's ability to produce offence is limited as well. It's a delicate give-and-take, and I think Martin's been a bit heavy-handed and hard-headed with managing it.
Among the positives the team can build on for tomorrow are the play of PK Subban, who's taking up Markov's minutes as though he's been doing it for years. The kid got caught a couple of times, but managed to recover in time to avoid damage. He's going to be a great player for the Canadiens and is already a bright light. Jaro Halak showed he can play well even when he's not being mercilessly shelled. That bodes well for the chess-match-on-ice this series is shaping up to be. And the team stuck to the game plan and kept trying all night.
What it's got to do now, though, is tweak the game plan. That will fall to Kirk Muller, who's the real passion behind the Habs bench. It's his job to rally the troops and instruct them about what they need to do on the ice. Martin's job is to manage the strategy as the game goes on...and he's going to have to do a better job at using ALL his players. Tomorrow's game is officially a must-win, because, even for a hard-working team with heart, expecting consecutive recoveries from 3-1 series deficits is asking a bit much. I think the Habs can do it, if they've got anything left to give, and if the coaches improve their asset management.
Of course, a little luck would help too. And they have to remember not to underestimate Sidney Crosby's talent for manipulation.