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Eric Duhatschek

Habs heat up in Year of the Smurf Add to ...

In the Montreal Canadiens' long pantheon of playoff success, every unexpected triumph usually develops its own little shorthand to mark the occasion. A reference to '71 usually conjures up images and memories of Ken Dryden's extraordinary goaltending performance. The years '86 and '93 recall heroic work from Patrick Roy.

And now, halfway through a most extraordinary and unforeseen playoff run, it looks as if the spring of '10 could go down in Canadiens' history as the Year of the Smurf.

It may not be as catchy as the Flying Frenchmen, but it is hard to dispute the impact of Montreal's dogged little men, from Michael Cammalleri to Brian Gionta with a little Scott Gomez and Tomas Plekanec thrown in.

"I'm not going to lie to you - that's cool for us," said Cammalleri, in the immediate aftermath of Montreal's 5-2 win to eliminate the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins Wednesday night in the seventh game of their NHL Eastern Conference semi-final.

"We've heard since July 1 that we're too small and we won't be able to compete and we won't be able to make the playoffs; and when the playoffs come, how is a small team going to compete? What can I say?"

What can anybody say?

In these playoffs, Montreal has perfected the art of the timely counter-attack, and a lot of it has to do with their water-bug forwards, who use their quickness to force turnovers and find seams in the defence.

Pressure forechecking by Andrei Kostitysyn forced the giveaway by Chris Kunitz that led to the third Montreal goal, Cammalleri's playoff-leading 12th and the eventual game winner. Seven of Camalleri's playoff goals came against the Penguins, where he was Montreal's leading man all series long. Toronto-born, Cammalleri joined the Canadiens last summer as a free agent, part of a massive influx of smallish scorers signed or acquired via trade by former general manager Bob Gainey in an attempt to alter the Canadiens' culture.

It was unusual team-building by NHL standards, the antithesis of the brawn and brute-force strategy underway in Toronto. Everybody wants a 6-foot-4 centre; it was largely the Canadiens' inability to pry Vincent Lecavalier away from the Tampa Bay Lightning that sent them after Cammalleri, Gionta and the rest.

"Geo is a small guy, people don't realize I'm much bigger than him and Cammy," said Gomez, a wolfish grin on his face. "When we were coming into the league, that was when it was sexy to be 6-4. We all heard it at the draft; we all heard we were too small.

"Hey, I'm not going to kid myself. I'd love to be 6-4 and the starting pitcher for the [New York]Yankees, but it didn't work out that way. We knew with the group we had, it didn't matter how big you were. Heart goes a long way."

So now Montreal moves on and Pittsburgh goes home, its chance to defend the Stanley Cup championship lost to a bunch of guys with the aforementioned big hearts tucked inside those size 'small' sweaters.

Gionta scored the first and last goals for the Canadiens. The second came on a beautiful cross-ice pass from Cammalleri on a third-period power play that restored the three-goal advantage and squeezed the last bit of life out of the Penguins.

"We know we've got to keep pushing, but we're only halfway there," said Gionta. "We want to win the Stanley Cup."

The Penguins' path to a repeat appeared clear when the three top-seeded teams in the East all fell in the opening round. Last night, Pittsburgh joined the ranks of favourites on the sidelines, while Montreal becomes the last Canadian team left standing, an eighth seed that has found a way of eliminating two of the NHL's glamour teams.

Suddenly, the possibilities of turning a fun Cinderella run into their record 25th championship seem more real than ever.

The joy ride is just beginning. With the Penguins and the regular-season champion Washington Capitals on the sidelines, who knows where it might go next?

 

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