Montreal's smurfs are looking more and more like giant killers.
Led by red-hot sniper Mike Cammalleri and icy-veined netminder Jaroslav Halak, the smallish Montreal Canadiens came up big for what seemed the umpteenth time in these Stanley Cup playoffs, trimming the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-3 to force a decisive seventh game in their Eastern Conference semifinal.
Cammalleri scored twice and Halak kicked out 34 of 37 shots as the eighth-seeded Canadiens staved off elimination for the fourth time this post-season.
"We like the way we stayed with it," Cammalleri told Hockey Night in Canada.
Game 7 goes Wednesday night at Pittsburgh (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7 p.m. ET) and, while fans keep pinching themselves, wondering if they're dreaming, the players have kept their wits about them.
"For us, it's the reality," Cammalleri said. "If you pinch yourself, you're beat.
"I remember when you first come in the league, if you start sitting around staring in awe and catching flies, you will be out pretty quick. Now we belong.
"We're having fun. For us, hey, we've got an opportunity to knock these guys off in Game 7. Let's go enjoy it and I'll say the same thing I've said every game, 'Let's see if we can't go and play a great game.'"
Montreal faced a similar 3-2 series deficit in the previous round and rallied to upset the top-ranked Washington Capitals, the Presidents' Trophy winners, in seven games. And though rookie P.K. Subban has provided a spirited boost, Montreal's patchwork defence has felt the strain of losing Andrei Markov (knee) and the prolonged absence of Paul Mara (shoulder) against Pittsburgh, the defending Stanley Cup champion.
Yet as much as Montreal's depleted defence has bent, it has simply refused to break — and held firm again Monday night in Game 6 at a boisterous Bell Centre. Moreover, Jaroslav Spacek scored in his return to the lineup after missing nine games with an undisclosed virus.
"It was a good solid team effort," he said.
Hulking defenceman Hal Gill, the post-season leader with 51 blocked shots and the skater most responsible for keeping Sidney Crosby from scoring in the first five games — Gill took to the ice for 71.1 per cent of Crosby's shifts — was scratched because of an injured left leg. Gill skated in the pre-game warmup but couldn't play.
"I just wanted to get my feet under me and skate a little bit," he said.
Maxim Lapierre eluded Alex Goligoski along the side boards and swept in front to score what turned out to be the winning goal on a gorgeous individual effort with 11:03 remaining for the Canadiens, who have a chance to end Pittsburgh's string of five straight series wins.
"It's going to be a great challenge for us," Lapierre said. "We know what to expect from them, from their fans, and we just need a good start in Pittsburgh."
Bill Guerin was credited with a late goal while Sergei Gonchar, initially tabbed as the scorer, settled for a pair of assists for the fourth-seeded Penguins.
With superstars like Crosby and Evgeni Malkin logging copious minutes up front, it is somewhat surprising that Gonchar tops Pittsburgh with six points in the series. That said, Crosby finally found the back of the net in Game 6, scoring the Penguins' first goal and later assisting on Kris Letang's power-play goal.
"They were facing elimination," Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis said. "They were a desperate hockey team.
"They came hard. They have some guys who are putting the puck in the net right now.
"Cammalleri is playing really well for them right now. At the same time, they're in their building … and we've just got to go back home and win at home."
'Times when it goes in'
"Play solid defence and capitalize on your chances. My dad taught me that. He showed me that reference after we won a few games that way, so it's working for us a little bit." — Mike Cammalleri on the Italian soccer theory of Catenaccio
"It was a good solid team effort. Even after we were down 2-1, we were still playing with the system and put so much pressure on them." — Jaroslav Spacek on the strategy
Cammalleri pounced on a Letang turnover in neutral ice and ripped a return pass from Tomas Plekanec to open the scoring 73 seconds into the contest.
But Crosby knotted it 1-1 at the 7:22 mark, whacking a rebound out of mid-air for his first goal of the series and sixth overall.
Halak turned aside 12 other Penguin shots in the first period to keep it deadlocked and denied Dupuis on a breakaway early in the second. Later in the period during consecutive power plays, both Gonchar and Malkin beat Halak with shots that clanked off posts and stayed out before Letang scored the go-ahead goal on a wrist shot from the high slot that squirted under Halak's right arm at 5:21.
But the Canadiens refused to fold and Cammalleri tied it less than six minutes later on an odd-man rush, taking a quick pass from Andrei Kostitsyn and firing a backhand shot over Marc-Andre Fleury's right shoulder for his second goal in as many periods, sixth of the series and 11th this post-season — the most by a member of the Canadiens since Vincent Damphousse had 11 in 1993, the last time Montreal hoisted the Stanley Cup.
"You go through times when it goes in," Cammalleri said.
Two-and-a-half minutes later and with the spillover crowd of 21,273 still chanting, Spacek scored on a point shot to put the Canadiens ahead 3-2 and send the raucous throng into a delirium.
"I hadn't scored in 50 games," Spacek said. "But I had a couple of chances, you know, shots on net they blocked.
"Finally, the guys did a great job in front of him [Fleury] and that's how we scored a couple of goals."
"The momentum switched with turnovers and they ended scoring two quick goals," Letang noted. "We tried to get back in the game.
"We had our chances, like I said. We hit three posts."