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Habs look for more of the same against Pittsburgh

Montreal Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak makes a save on the Washington Capitals during the third of action in Game 7 of their NHL Eastern Conference quarter-final hockey series in Washington, April 28, 2010.

JIM YOUNG/REUTERS

The nickname - Skillsie - was obviously meant to be ironic, but that's not to say Montreal Canadiens defenceman Hal Gill is entirely bereft of hockey ability.

Yes, Gill has the turning radius and nimbleness of a navy frigate. No, he can't stickhandle or shoot much beyond garage-league level.

And yet, the towering Massachusetts native does some things better than nearly everyone: kill penalties, block shots and generally put himself about - skills that have proved infectious in the Montreal dressing room.

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"It's not glitzy or glamorous ... you need to be willing and determined, that's why he's been so successful his whole career. And guys feed off that," said Habs defenceman Josh Gorges, who forms the Canadiens' shut-down defensive pairing with Gill.

While most eyes will turn to the impending showdown between Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby - the NHL's playoff scoring leader and a lifelong Habs fan - and Jaroslav Halak, the playoffs' hottest goaltender, the visitors' hopes hinge on the bigger picture: their ability to play team defence against the Pens' fearsome attack.

And that means tactical adjustments and more yeoman efforts from the likes of Gill and Gorges, who were major factors in neutralizing Washington's murderous power play and high-octane top line in the unlikely seven-game upset of the Capitals.

"I think we're going to see a lot more passing, we're going to have to cover lanes, we're going to have to play really well as a team ... they don't really have a weakness," said Gill, who won the Stanley Cup as a Penguin last season and is one of the Canadiens' dressing room's most influential figures.

The Pens won three of the four regular-season meetings between the two teams, and Crosby clearly loves to play against his childhood heroes, having scored 11 goals and 14 assists in 18 career games against the Habs.

"I've never played Montreal in the playoffs but I can imagine what it's like," Crosby told a gaggle of reporters after practice yesterday.

If Crosby seems to grow in stature with each passing playoff round, perhaps the same may soon be said of Halak, who has made an astonishing 131 saves on the last 134 shots directed at him, and elevated his game to unprecedented levels.

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He's also been helped by the Habs' defensive cohesiveness, which has been exemplary: 182 shots have been absorbed or deflected by Montreal shin-pads, skates and body parts, comfortably the most in the playoffs.

They conspired to block 41 shots in the deciding game - perhaps none bigger than Gorges' diving deflection of Jason Chimera's shot in the final moments.

But that was Wednesday, now the task gets harder.

If the Montreal defensive game plan succeeded in owning the centre of the ice and hemming in the likes of Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, its architects now face an even stiffer challenge in the form of the Stanley Cup defending champions.

"I don't think you can get too caught up in blocking shots and evaluating your game on shots. You have to realize that those tough areas don't change whether you have 20 shots or 50," Crosby said.

Gorges said the Canadiens will have to continue to employ the relentless, in-your-face approach that worked against Washington.

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But the specific tactics will surely vary.

Crosby is a more multifaceted player than Ovechkin, and the Pens also have Conn Smythe winner Evgeni Malkin and centre Jordan Staal to throw at Montreal.

"When we're playing aggressive hockey and we're up the ice it allows our D-men to have a good gap and our forwards are in a good position pushing back and forcing them into us," Gorges said.

Pittsburgh enters tonight's opening game with what could be a significant advantage: they haven't played in nearly a week. Montreal, on the other hand, barely had 48 hours to recover from the emotions in Washington - the eighth seed has upset a top seed in the first round on 10 occasions since 1996, only once has that team progressed beyond the second round.

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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