PITTSBURGH – Montreal has shed its Cinderella tag once and for all.
All it took was a dominating 5-2 dismantling of the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins in Wednesday night's Game 7 at Mellon Arena – the last game in the building's rich hockey history -- to prove that Montreal was better than the best team in hockey league last year, a team that boasts two of the biggest names in the game in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and was the prohibitive favorite to reach a third-straight Eastern Conference Finals.
Instead, it is a workmanlike Montreal team -- which outplayed Pittsburgh in all facets of the game Wednesday night -- which moves on to the next round. The Canadiens are the first No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference to reach the third round since the current playoff format was adopted in 1994.
"We played well together," said Montreal defenseman Hall Gill, who was a member of the Penguins' championship team last spring. "We got guys to step up at the right time, and that's what you need. In the playoffs, it's not about your star players -- it's about everyone."
The Canadiens began their miraculous journey with a stunning comeback from a 3-1 series deficit against top-seeded Washington and Alex Ovechkin in the first round. Now, Montreal will play either the No. 6 Boston Bruins or the seventh-seeded Philadelphia Flyers in the most unlikely of conference finals.
"It just means we get to keep playing," said forward Mike Cammalleri, whose second-period goal was his League-high 12th of the playoffs -- the most by a Canadien since Guy Lafleur scored the same number in 1975.
It's Montreal's first trip this deep into the playoffs since 1993, the year the franchise won the last of its record 24 Stanley Cups.
"We might be changing some minds," Cammalleri said. "We've had that underlying confidence. It's been good so far, but we have to get better."
While almost every one of the first six games of this series has been close – no team won by more than two goals in the past five games – Game 7 was never in doubt.
Crosby took a boarding penalty just 10 seconds into the game and Brian Gionta made the Penguins play with a nifty redirection of a PK Subban shot, wedging the puck between the near-side post and the left arm of Marc-Andre Fleury just 22 seconds later. It was Montreal's first shot of the game, marking the third time in this series that Fleury has given up a first-shot goal.
Things did not get much better for Fleury from there. He had only lost back-to-back playoff games three times in the past three years – a stretch of 56 games -- before Wednesday night. But he followed a 4-3 loss in Game 6 with a game he would prefer to forget.
In fairness, Fleury did not get much help from his defense.
On the second goal, Brooks Orpik was too busy trying to put Maxime Lapierre into the back of the net to be in position when the puck was turned over and claimed by Montreal's Dominic Moore. In fact, the late-reacting Orpik could only manage to screen Fleury as Moore ripped a turnaround shot along the ice and into the far corner.
On the third goal – No. 12 of the postseason for Cammalleri – forward Chris Kunitz made an egregious turnover in his own end and watched helplessly as Tomas Plekanec started a tic-tac-toe passing sequence that culminated with an unmarked Cammalleri ripping a one-timer from the slot high to the stick side.
That goal was Cammalleri's seventh in this series and, fittingly, proved to be the game-winner.
But Montreal still wasn't done -- the Canadiens struck on the penalty kill, giving them a goal in all three disciplines on this night.
Kunitz made an ill-advised play in the attacking zone, ceding control of the puck and allowing Travis Moen to break out of the zone at full speed with the puck on his stick and only Sergei Gonchar to beat. Moen passed the puck off the boards to himself as Gonchar put up token resistance at best, then raced into the left circle before snapping off a wrister that beat a befuddled Fleury, who was replaced at that point by Brent Johnson. Fleury made just 9 saves on 13 shots.
"They came hard, created some chances and capitalized on every one of them," a disappointed Crosby said.
The Penguins, though, refused to go quietly into the playoff night and provided a few special moments in the final hockey game at Mellon Arena, which will be replaced by Consol Energy Center at the start of next season.
Mellon Arena opened its doors for NHL hockey on Oct. 15, 1967 as the Penguins hosted, ironically, the Montreal Canadiens -- losing 2-1. Wednesday night, it closed its doors after that same Canadiens organization pulled off one of the most monumental upsets in the building's 43-year run as home of the Penguins.
Still, the Penguins didn't go without making a charge.
Kunitz started the fight-back with a rebound goal at 8:36 after Kris Letang created danger with an aggressive foray from his point position into the slot. With 3:30 left in the second, Jordan Staal, tipped home an Alexei Ponikarovsky slapper to make things interesting at 4-2.
But Pittsburgh could manage nothing else against Halak, a thorn in their side since Game 2 of this series. Gionta gave the Canadiens some breathing room when he batted a an airborne pass by Cammalleri past Johnson at the 10-minute mark of the final period while Pittsburgh was serving a penalty for too many men.
Halak made 37 saves, but his biggest might have come in the opening seconds of the third period while Montreal was trying to kill a 4-on-3 penalty while holding a two-goal lead. He stopped a Evgeni Malkin slapper from the point and then somehow got Crosby's immediate put-back attempt. That sequence, appropriately, captured the tenor of the entire series. Malkin was also robbed on a power play later in the period when his point-blank shot from the slot was calmly turned away by Halak.
So, once again, Halak was better than Pittsburgh's two best players. Malkin, the playoff MVP last season, had two goals in this series, but both came on the power play. Crosby had just one goal – in a Game 6 loss and 4 assists, three of which came on the power play.
1 - 0 MTL
2 - 0 MTL
3 - 0 MTL
4 - 0 MTL
4 - 1 MTL
4 - 2 MTL