Michael Cammalleri picked the perfect time to rediscover his scoring touch.
Blanked in the final nine games of the regular season after returning from a knee injury, the left-winger has eight goals in nine playoff games. He is also one of the leading factors — behind Jaroslav Halak's goaltending — in the Montreal Canadiens' surprising run in the NHL playoffs.
A pair of Cammalleri goals helped the Canadiens earn a 3-1 victory on Sunday for a split of the opening two games of their Eastern Conference semifinal series in Pittsburgh. Game 3 is set for Tuesday night at the Bell Centre in Montreal.
"I guess I saved some for the playoffs," Cammalleri said Monday. "When [the puck] is going in, everything goes in, and when it doesn't, nothing does.
"That's how it goes for goal-scorers."
The 27-year-old had five goals in Montreal's seven-game upset of the Washington Capitals in the first round of playoffs, and he has kept it going against Pittsburgh, a stronger defensive opponent.
His goals on Sunday were highlight reel material.
On the first, he kicked a rebound up and then batted it from the air over goaltender Marc-André Fleury to give Montreal a 2-1 lead. He made it 3-1 and sealed the victory when he took a puck off a defenceman's skate and drilled a high shot to the top corner.
He called his first goal "reactionary."
"Everyone asks, 'Did you mean to do that?' You can't tell if you meant to; you just do it," he said. "You just react. You don't really have to time to think about what you're going to do."
'It's not basketball,' says Cammalleri of size jabs
Cammalleri led the Canadiens with 26 goals when he damaged a knee in a hit from Ottawa's Anton Volchenkov on Jan. 30. Up to then, a stellar season had seen the Toronto native score a hat-trick on the Canadiens' 100th anniversary night against Boston and score the franchise's 20,000th goal on Dec. 28 against Ottawa.
He missed 17 games, returning March 24, but had only two assists on the home stretch as the Canadiens battled to hold on to a playoff spot, eventually just making it in eighth place.
Coach Jacques Martin said it is tougher for a player to come back in the midst of a playoff race when opponents are in top shape and are battling hard to avoid elimination.
"I believe our team in that stretch also progressed, as far as execution as a team, and it took time to adjust," said Martin. "I felt he really found his game in the last game of the season [against Toronto].
"He didn't score, but he had several good scoring chances. He was a factor in the game, and I think that gave him confidence that carried into the first game against Washington."
Now Cammalleri is one of the players who is making former general manager Bob Gainey look like a prophet for giving the team a major makeover last summer.
Gainey traded with the New York Rangers for centre Scott Gomez (and useful checker Tom Pyatt) and signed nine free agents, including Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, Travis Moen, Hal Gill and Jaroslav Spacek.
The Stanley Cup experience with other teams brought in by Gomez, Gionta, Moen and Hill has been key for Montreal, but so has the scoring touch of the stocky Cammalleri, who was left on the market after a 39-goal season with the Calgary Flames. He signed a $30 million US five-year contract with the Canadiens and so far, has been worth every penny.
When the deals were made, Smurf jokes abounded. The five-foot-nine 185-pound Cammalleri, as well as Gionta and Gomez, are on the small side for NHL forwards, and the fear was that the Canadiens would be pushed around by bigger teams in the playoffs.
Instead, they knocked off the league's first-place overall team in the first round and are now tied with the defending Stanley Cup champions.
"Sometimes, I don't understand that notion — it's not basketball, where the net's 10 feet in the air — but what can I tell you?" said Cammalleri. "Maybe overall, we've not the tallest team, but I look at size as a relative term.
"What is size at the end of the day? If Brian Gionta goes into a puck battle in the corner with a guy who is 6-foot-4 and he comes out with the puck, who's bigger? The team that wins the game at the end of the night is the bigger team."
Markov out long-term
Cammalleri spent his first five NHL seasons with the Los Angeles Kings and never saw the playoffs. His first post-season experience was last spring with Calgary, when he had one goal and two assists and was minus-2 in six games.
"I learned some valuable lessons last year," he said. "First, as how really enjoyable it is to play in the playoffs."
The Canadiens held an optional skate Monday, and only eight players went onto the ice: backup goalie Carey Price; defencemen Spacek and Ryan O'Byrne; and forwards Sergei and Andrei Kostitsyn, Glen Metropolit, Mathieu Darche and Ben Maxwell.
Spacek has not played since Game 3 of the Washington series because he came down with a virus. Martin gave no hint of whether he would return.
Top defenceman Andrei Markov, who suffered a lower body injury from a Matt Cooke hit in Game 1 against Pittsburgh, is likely out for the long-term, although Martin would only say he is scheduled to go for more tests to determine the full extent of the injury.
In Markov's absence, rookie P.K. Subban has shined. The flashy rearguard has a goal and two assists in four games since he was called up for Game 6 against the Capitals. Subban got 23 minutes 17 seconds of ice time in Game 2 playing with veteran Roman Hamrlik on Montreal's second defensive pair.
Defenceman Marc-André Bergeron, who took a knock on the head when he was rammed from behind into the boards by Craig Adams late in Game 2, is fine and is expected to play.