The tiny visiting dressing room at the Mellon Arena started to empty out with the news that Montreal Canadiens' coach Jacques Martin was heading to the interview area, leaving only a handful of reporters surrounding Michael Cammalleri. Cammalleri seemed in no rush to get out of there, taping a stick, savouring the moment, his second seventh game of the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Cammalleri had some questions - about what happened to his ex-team, the Calgary Flames this season - and a lot of thoughts and observations about what lay ahead for his team. Overall, there was a sense of calm about these Canadiens, thoroughly business-like in their approach. If they can squeeze past the Pittsburgh Penguins in tonight's winner-take-all showdown for a place in the Eastern Conference final, having already dispatched the regular-season champion Washington Capitals, well, at that point the sky would be the limit.
Cammalleri signed with the Canadiens after the Calgary Flames decided to pursue defenceman Jay Bouwmeester instead, spending all their salary-cap dollars to reinforce their blue line and leave themselves vulnerable up front for scoring. Cammalleri talked about only playing about 35 games with Jarome Iginla last year, but they were 35 extremely successful games; he ended up with a team-leading 39 goals for Calgary. In these playoffs, he's already contributed 11 to league the post-season in scoring.
In the past few years, Montreal has had difficulty recruiting players as free agents, even though they had dollars to spend, because the fishbowl nature of the players' existence there. When things go well, the adulation and support mean there is no better place to play. When things go sour, life can be much harder.
"To live the reality of Montreal is hard to explain to people - and what the atmosphere is like, unless you're in that building," said Cammalleri. "It's pretty cool. I remember (assistant coach) Kirk Muller and I were having a bite to eat a couple of months ago and he said to me, 'What do you think?' And I said, 'When I was a kid and dreamed of playing in the NHL, this is what I dreamed it would be like.'
"It is what it is - they expect a lot out of you, the public and the fans, but you have to expect a lot out of yourself. If you don't perform to the best of your ability, people aren't going to be happy with you.
"But in pro sport, we put more pressure on ourselves than anyone else ... I know I've only been here a year and things can go up and down quickly in this business; I'm not naive to that; but having said that, I almost feel bad for any guy who plays his whole NHL career without ever experiencing what it's like to be a Montreal Canadien. I understand that it can be ugly too, but it's pretty fun right now."
Martin, the team's coach, is so stiff in public and rarely will divulge any information of consequence, including what he might do with the assorted injuries on his defence corps, but according to Cammalleri, he is loosening up, at least to the players in his pre-game speeches.
"He's such an even-keeled guy, but as the playoffs have been building, he's been getting a little more emotional in his speeches and there's a little more pep in his step," said Cammalleri.
As for the notion that the Habs are - for now - Canada's team following the elimination of the Vancouver Canucks from playoff competition, Cammalleri said: "It's a little new, so I haven't thought a lot about it, but you'd would think the whole country would be pushing a little bit. Should we win tonight, we would probably get a pretty good rallying cry from the whole country."
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