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Frank Seravalli

TSN Senior Hockey Reporter


Jeff Petry cradled the puck and surveyed the slot before picking his spot.

No matter that there was only the slightest bit of daylight behind Matt Murray.

“This time of year,” Petry noted, “there are no bad shots.”

Petry zinged it off Murray’s helmet and as the puck twirled down the twine, making him just the fifth defenceman in vaunted Montreal Canadiens lore to net two game-winning playoff goals in a single season - let alone a series - the message was clear.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and their three-time Stanley Cup winning core are on the ropes.

An upset of epic proportions is brewing, after the No. 12 seed Canadiens erased a two-goal hole with three consecutive strikes on Wednesday night to take Game 3 by a 4-3 margin.

How big? The fifth-seeded Penguins had the seventh-best record in the NHL in the regular season based on points percentage and the Habs had the eighth worst. With a short series, and a four-month layoff, the absurdity of 2020 may take off some of the shock value, but on paper the disparity is bigger than any one of the Penguins’ disappointing losses last decade.

Think about it: Montreal had no business even sniffing the Stanley Cup playoffs. Even if the Habs won all 11 of its remaining games, there was an infinitesimal chance those 93 points would have been enough to earn a ticket to the dance.

Suddenly, with a 2-1 lead in this best-of-five series, the Canadiens smell blood. They can close out the Penguins on Friday afternoon in Game 4.

Might as well start thinking about revving up that Rimouski to Pittsburgh pipeline with Alexis Lafreniere skating next to his boyhood idol, because the Pens are 60 minutes away from a 12.5 per cent shot at No. 1 overall.

“Our back’s against the wall,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “It’s win or go home. Our guys understand what’s at stake. We’ve been here before.”

Maybe that is what’s most shocking. The Habs, one of the most inexperienced playoff teams, looked like the three-time Stanley Cup winners in Game 3.

For all of the talk about Carey Price - and he has been exceptional with a .937 save percentage in this round - the hard truth is that the Penguins won Price's best game of the series so far.

All of the focus on Price has sold short the concerted relentlessness of the players in front of him, from heartbeat Brendan Gallagher to Man Mountain Shea Weber.

“We’ve just done it by working hard,” coach Claude Julien said of the 2-1 lead. “At the end of the day, we know where the experience [advantage] is and the only way we can counter that is with our commitment and desire.

“I think we’re a good skating team. I think we’ve got potential. We lack experience compared to the other team and we’re trying to make up for it with our compete level.”

Game 3 wasn’t so much about what the Penguins didn’t do, but what the Habs did to the Penguins. Somehow, a team that gave the historically bad Detroit Red Wings a quarter of their league-low 17 wins this season, dictated the direction and pace.

“Guys battled hard, no matter what the situation was tonight,” Weber said.

Fall into a 3-1 hole? No problem.

Go 0-for-5 on the power play? We don’t need the man-advantage, we can score after those expire. The two goals that followed, as Gallagher said, “just came from hard work and pounding the puck.”

Have to kill off the final 15 minutes of the contest after Petry’s go-ahead goal against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin? No sweat.

That’s where Price came in. Price has stopped 32-of-33 shots faced in the third period and overtime in the first three games of the series. An all-world netminder shutting the door in those situations can help give any team a chance.

But what the Canadiens have proven in these first three games is that they aren’t going to sit back and hope and pray Price can carry them. They’ve gone out and taken it from the Penguins, a confidence that has visibly grown with each shift.

Watching the young centres Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi blossom has been something to behold. But their experience gained here isn’t as powerful as the team’s overall belief that they can play with the Pens.

“It’s important that we build some confidence here with our group and I think that’s what you’re seeing,” Julien said. “I thought we handled it well.”

The trick now will be to carry that forward into Friday afternoon.

“We can’t get overconfident,” Julien said. “But we’ve got to have the confidence to close it off.”

Why not? For a mediocre Montreal team with quick feet and tons of compete, the Habs are squeezing every bit out of an opportunity of a lifetime.

“We knew where we were when we finished in March,” Paul Byron said. “To get a chance like this, it doesn’t come around very often.”

Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli