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Montreal Canadiens' defenceman Hal Gill holds on to Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby during second period of Game 3 NHL Eastern Conference semi-finals hockey action Tuesday, May 4, 2010 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Montreal Canadiens' defenceman Hal Gill holds on to Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby during second period of Game 3 NHL Eastern Conference semi-finals hockey action Tuesday, May 4, 2010 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Penguins prevail in Montreal Add to ...

The seconds kept ticking away, with the puck staying out, the scoring chances low and Game 3 on the line for whoever could break the stalemate.

No score after the first period.

No score after the second.

And as the Bell Centre went quiet and then swelled, over and over, by the third period, it was clear that one play would decide the game.

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That didn't take long.

With the Montreal Canadiens' two top shutdown defenders in the penalty box, the Pittsburgh Penguins finally got an appearance from elusive centre Evgeni Malkin, who belted a slap shot from the top of the circle past Habs netminder Jaroslav Halak a minute into the final frame.

Malkin's first goal of the series then stood up as the winner in a 2-0 affair that gives Pittsburgh a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference semi-final battle.

Despite the loss, the Canadiens maintained they had done a lot right, again bottling up and frustrating Penguins captain Sidney Crosby -- who will enter Thursday's Game 4 without an even-strength point in the series -- and only being beaten late on the power play in a game that could have gone either way.

"I liked our game," winger Mike Cammalleri said. "I thought the encouraging part for us is we played a sound game as far as how we wanted to play and it was a little more even as far as puck possession for the most part.

"It was tight both ways -- they get the goal and we don't."

Tight hardly does this one justice, as if it's generally a game of inches in the playoffs, Tuesday night's contest was measured in millimetres, with Hal Gill's late second period holding penalty on Crosby likely the defining difference.

"We played a patient game," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "We weren't trying to score with every rush ... That's what you need and how you need to play in the playoffs, to play that way in a tight game."

For Montreal, the loss stings even more knowing they came out with authority, holding the balance of play in front of a raucous crowd but coming short of beating Marc-Andre Fleury in the first period.

Montreal would then manage just 11 shots from that point on, not nearly enough to test Fleury but for one last-dash near-goal on the power play with minutes to play in the game.

"He's never been one to put up blazing numbers, but he's always been one to answer the game-saving situation," Bylsma said of his goaltender. "Our room believes in the guy we've got in the net. Time and time again, he's proven it."

Impressing the most early on for the Habs were some of their previously dormant depth forwards, with even the much maligned fourth line -- bolted to the bench in Game 2's win -- hemming the Penguins in their zone on one first-period foray.

"I probably haven't used as many people as you'd like," coach Jacques Martin had admitted before the game, implying both teams would need their pluggers in what figures to be a long series.

That war of attrition is already well under way, what with the Habs losing top defenceman Andrei Markov to a knee injury, likely for the season, and the Penguins without two key forwards -- Jordan Staal and Bill Guerin -- in this one.

And as much as Markov is an obvious loss given the minutes he logs for Montreal, the holes up front for Pittsburgh could prove doubly troubling given their already thin forward corps.

That Guerin, approaching 40 years old and with only 45 points this season, was the Pens' highest scoring winger is an excellent illustration of the salary cap's effect on championship teams and the fact they can't always afford to surround their stars with talent.

Pittsburgh's supporting cast picked up the pace in the second period, however, forcing Halak to come up big as his team was outshot 13-3.

Then, with time winding down in the middle frame, Gill got overzealous in his one-on-one battle with Crosby and the behemoth Habs blueliner went to the box for the third game in a row. Twelve seconds later, Josh Gorges took a coincidental minor for an after the whistle skirmish with Kris Letang, and the Penguins had their opening.

Coming out of the third period with a nearly two minute man advantage, Pittsburgh capitalized, scoring on the power play for the fifth time in three games.

"It was tough being in the box watching that," Gill said. "It's disappointing."

Pascal Dupuis then rounded out the scoring with an empty-netter with 15 seconds to play, capping a solid game in fill-in duty in Guerin's spot on the Penguins' top line.

Malkin's goal, meanwhile, was enough to ruin a solid 23-save outing for Halak - and leave the Canadiens in a position where they'll desperately need to win Game 4 or face elimination on the weekend in Pittsburgh.

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

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