Well, THAT was painful! We never actually had a woodshed out back when I was growing up, but if we did and I was ever taken out to it and spanked, I'd have a better idea about how the Habs penalty killers are feeling today.
As often happens in the playoffs, special teams made the difference last night. The Penguins didn't just spend their off-days having a few beers and sleeping late. They studied. They watched the video of the Habs PK and they practiced how they could most effectively dismantle it. It turns out the Pens are very good students. The Caps were slow to make passes on their PP, and rarely had anyone in front of Halak. They took a lot of low-percentage shots and they scrambled for rebounds around Halak's feet, where the Habs' goalie is very good. The Pens saw all that, so they planned their strategy accordingly. They always had a big man screening Halak, and they used their quick, precise passing to move Canadiens defenders out of the shooting lanes. When they did shoot, they took high-percentage screened blasts, high on Halak who couldn't see past the butt in front of him.
The special teams really killed the Habs last night, and now it's time for them to see the Penguins adjustments and raise them a few of their own. The first thing they need to adjust is goaltending. I love Jaro Halak. The Habs wouldn't be in the playoffs at all without him, and certainly not in the second round. However, I really believe a coach has to use the best players for each specific set of circumstances. In this case, the Penguins were able to screen Halak effectively, and they were going high on him. This is where Price may be better suited to defending against the opponent's strategy. He's considerably bigger than Halak, and may have better luck seeing around the guys in his crease. His size will also help him fill more net on those high shots. Of course, sometimes no goalie is going to stop those, but the Habs are still in a position to try something like a goalie switch in an effort to adapt before it's too late. If it doesn't work, Halak is back for game three. At worst, Jaro gets a couple of days of much-needed rest.
The other thing that needs to change on the PK is the strategy. The Pens are moving the puck quickly, and the Habs are attempting to push the puck carrier like they did against Washington. The problem is, by the time they get to the puck carrier, he doesn't have the puck anymore. They need to play a more patient defence and use their sticks better.
On offence, the Habs have a better chance if they throw every shot they possibly can at Fleury. He was bad in the Ottawa series, and Subban's goal last night was iffy as well. He can be beaten, and probably on weird shots from bad angles.
In terms of the lineup, aside from possibly giving Price the start tomorrow, I'd bench Andrei Kostitsyn. The talent is there, obviously, but he's playing outside the team right now. Everybody is buying into the concept of self-sacrifice for victory except him. He looks like he had a cruise planned for the first week of May and he's mad he had to cancel. While the Canadiens could certainly use whatever scoring he might bring, and his occasional physical play, his basic laziness is taking something away from what the group is trying to accomplish. I don't think Kostitsyn is necessarily heartless. I just think he's not overly smart. It's one of those cases where the skills don't match the IQ. If this team is a house, Kostitsyn is the faulty wiring that will eventually burn it down. Elliotte Freidman reported today that AK is skating with the scrubs, so that lineup change may happen sooner rather than later.
When it comes right down to it, however, a player here or there won't make a huge difference when the defence is as depleted as it is right now. The D is the foundation of the house, and when a couple of big pieces are missing, the house starts to wobble. Markov's absence is a big blow, even if he's not been his usual dominating self in the last few games. Worse, though, is the continued absence of Spacek, who was able to step up and fill in for Markov earlier in the year. With those two missing, Hamrlik and Bergeron get more minutes, and that's not going to help. All the strategy in the world doesn't matter if you just don't have the people to carry it out effectively. This is when carrying a specialist like Bergeron who can't really play a bigger role comes back to haunt a team. So does the pointless callup of Ben Maxwell who won't play, but whose presence means the Habs can't call on any help from Hamilton. It's possible Hamrlik may do what he's done in the past and step up his game when it really matters, but it's going to be really hard.
Speaking of defence, PK Subban is a wonderful player to watch. He looks much more mature than he should at his age, and he's the antithesis of Andrei Kostitsyn when it comes to using his brain on the ice. His skating is otherworldly. I'm sure Crosby rarely runs into a defender who can keep up with all his little spins and quick stops in the corners, but Subban did it last night. He's such a bright spot for the team's future, and will certainly make the roster next year. Also positive is the fact that the team seems to have found its identity. This is a hard-working, positive, dedicated group of players, and that will stand them in good stead right now and into next season. Mike Cammalleri too, is a positive. He's the best goal scorer the Habs have owned in a very long time.
I learned in the Caps series that you can never count out a team that plays together with a single goal, and that's willing to sacrifice a lot to reach that goal. The thing is, the Penguins have the same goal. I thought, even-strength, the Canadiens played at least as well as the Pens last night. But they've got some work to do on special teams if they want to avoid another trip to the woodshed.