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Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby (L) collides with Montreal Canadiens Hal Gill during the second period of action in Game 2 of their NHL Eastern Conference semi-final hockey series in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, May 2, 2010. REUTERS/Jason Cohn (JASON COHN)
Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby (L) collides with Montreal Canadiens Hal Gill during the second period of action in Game 2 of their NHL Eastern Conference semi-final hockey series in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, May 2, 2010. REUTERS/Jason Cohn (JASON COHN)

ROY MACGREGOR

Gill shuts down opponents Add to ...

To say that Hal Gill has found his game doesn't quite explain it all.

He is, indeed, the background star of the Montreal Canadiens' surprising victory over the Washington Capitals, the NHL's best team in the regular season, and of Montreal's current challenge against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the defending Stanley Cup champions.

He is not Jaroslav Halak, the unknown goaltender who has at times been magical - some here would say mystical - in net for the Canadiens. But Gill is the one who blocks or steers clear almost as many shots, the one who shuts down the Alex Ovechkins and Sidney Crosbys as much as is humanly possible, as they, obviously, are simply not human.

It is no coincidence that when Pittsburgh won Game 3 with that power-play goal in the third period, Gill was sitting in the penalty box and Crosby was where he otherwise would never have been allowed by Gill - setting a perfect screen for Evgeni Malkin to fire home the winning goal.

With the Penguins up two games to one, Gill and Halak will have to be even better Thursday night in Montreal if the Canadiens hope to come back in this series as they did against Washington in the first round.

He is celebrated here in Montreal as he was last year in Pittsburgh, where his shot-blocking and checking helped Crosby and his teammates to the Stanley Cup.

But has seen the other side. He has heard jeers and been ridiculed on the sports call-in shows in Boston and Toronto, where the 35-year-old journeyman has also played.

It comes with the territory when you yourself are the size of a Canadian territory: 6-foot-7, 250 pounds. He was hockey's giant until Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara came along to look down on him.

He knows he stands out. "If I make a mistake, I'm usually the last line of defence," he once said when in Boston. "So it's a pretty obvious thing. Not much I can do about it except try not to make mistakes."

It has given Gill a wonderful, self-deprecating sense-of-humour that was on display Wednesday morning as he, alone among the regulars, elected to skate with those who will not even be dressing Thursday night.

"I don't know if some people would call it skating," he joked, "but I'm on skates."

That he ever put on skates at all is the surprise. The native of Bolton, Mass., was a football and baseball protégé as well as a hockey player. So skilled was he at quarterback - tall enough to see his receivers, strong enough to throw the ball 70 yards with accuracy - that the scholarship offers rolled in, including one from nearby Boston College, where he had dreamed of playing. He could have done the same with baseball, as he was a catcher with an arm only fools challenged.

But he had fallen so hard in love with hockey that he accepted, instead, a scholarship to Providence College. When he was drafted by the Bruins in 1993 - 207th overall - he wasn't aware the NHL draft was on. He thought his brother was pulling a practical trick on him.

It did not come easy. He struggled early and struggled again later, after the 2004-05 lockout ended and the NHL brought in new rules that seemed designed to put a quick end to his career. He couldn't play the game any longer as he once had.

In a sloppy, unstructured environment such as Toronto was following the lockout, he tried to do too much and ended up not doing much of anything. In Pittsburgh - micro-managed by new coach Dan Bylsma - he ended up a significant defender in the Penguins' march to the Cup.

Signed by Montreal to a $4.5-million (U.S.), two-year contract, he found even more structure under new coach Jacques Martin, and he has thrived. The talk shows now praise where once they attacked.

He could not be happier. "I met a couple of homeless guys on the street who know who I am," he told the Montreal Gazette earlier this season. "If a homeless guy knows his hockey, then you know you're in Montreal."

And every person in Montreal also knows that if Sidney Crosby is going to continue to be shut down - one shot and no points Tuesday night; one shot and no points Sunday - it will be largely the task of Hal Gill.

"You can't take penalties," Gill says, still sick from the feeling he felt when Pittsburgh scored the winner and he was watching from the penalty box.

"And he's a guy if you play him too hard you're going to get a call."

Still, it will be up to him, and defence partner Josh Gorges, to stop shots from getting through - and up to Halak to stop those that do. Otherwise, Montreal is in trouble.

There are times when he wonders how it is he gave up a chance to play a position, quarterback, that is all about attack for one that is all about defence.

"I loved football," he says. "I loved the whole idea of being in control and being quarterback.

"Maybe I should have gone there - it would be a lot more fun than blocking shots."

 

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