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Penguins' task is to solve Montreal's goalie

The masked man who ousted Ovi is up next.

So, who is this Jaroslav Halak — an unexpected "next one" in the fabled Montreal Canadiens' goaltending lineage or a former ninth-round draft pick with all the right saves at just the right time for an upstart No. 8 seed?

"No, I don't (know a lot about Halak)," Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar said Thursday. "I know he's playing real well for them.

"I don't know if it's a groove."

The Penguins will begin finding out Friday night at Mellon Arena in Game 1 of a second-round Stanley Cup playoff series.

Halak, 24, allowed three goals on 134 shots in three wins that capped a shocking first-round comeback from a 3-1 series deficit against the Washington Capitals, the NHL's top regular-season club. Reigning two-time league MVP and Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin was blanked in those losses.

Should Ovechkin's lone rival among NHL megastars, Penguins center and hockey historian Sidney Crosby, be a bit worried that Halak might be to this postseason what former Canadiens goalie Patrick Roy was to the 1993 playoffs?

That year Roy delivered the Canadiens their most recent of 23 titles with a brilliant backstopping performance - 11 overtime wins - to return the Cup to Montreal after it spent the previous two summers in Pittsburgh.

Is Crosby, off to a sizzling playoff start with five goals and 14 points, worried?

"That's not a word I'd use about anybody in this room," Penguins forward Mike Rupp said. "We have a lot of respect for their goalie and that team, but we feel very confident about what we can do."

Oddsmakers do, too. Bodog has listed the Penguins as 5-2 favorites to win the Cup after a first round in which the Eastern Conference's top three seeds were eliminated.

Crosby and teammates Evgeni Malkin and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury are the top three favorites to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

Halak is listed ninth at 18-1.

"If that goalie can play the same way as he played the last three games, anything can happen," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said Wednesday night after Halak made 41 saves at Washington in a 2-1 victory.

"The Penguins are going to come after him. The one thing about Montreal - they've completely bought into the fact of what they have to do to win. If they get a lead, they're going to be tough to beat."

Halak is the toast of hockey-crazed Montreal at the moment, but Canadiens fans remember he was pulled in Game 3 at Bell Center after making only 10 saves through about 28 minutes. He started Game 5 only because previously anointed heir to the Canadiens goaltending throne, Carey Price, was brutal in a Game 4 home loss.

To consider these Canadiens a one-goalie club is a disservice to their disciplined system — a classic neutral-zone trap, the likes of which stymied the Penguins often in the regular season - and a defense corps led by shutdown pairing of former Penguin Hal Gill and Josh Georges.

Gill's defense partner with the Penguins last season on their Cup run, Rob Scuderi, warned that a positionally sound defense pairing can alter a series.

"It happens, and I think we showed that in the playoffs," said Scuderi, who like Gill departed the Penguins as a free agent last summer. "Those guys might be able to help shut down Sidney's line, but, even then, the Canadiens still have to deal with Malkin and (Penguins center Jordan) Staal.

"Maybe Halak plays lights out, and everything goes great for Montreal, but it's tough for me to see that happening again."

The Canadiens will try to replicate what worked well against Washington:

» The Capitals never carried a lead into the second period, and they trailed after the first in the final three games.

» Washington's regular-season best power play struggled to get shots through from the point and was held to one goal on 33 chances.

» The Canadiens limited Washington to only 10 goals from players not on the top line.

» Montreal's undersized-but-skilled forwards won races to pucks, and their overall speed nullified the Capitals' plan to physically dominate the series.

Translation: These Canadiens are more than Halak.

However, the Penguins received goals from 12 players in a Round 1 dismissal of Ottawa, which like Montreal was expert at blocking shots.

Also, they have a history of wearing out opposing goalies, who are 7-23 in series after Game 2, dating to 2008.

"We're going to take a different approach to scoring goals than Washington did," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said, promising shots that weren't meant to score goals but create chances.

"Montreal looked pretty comfortable playing its game."

True, and to answer Gonchar: Yes, Halak is in a groove.

He's also human.

"We have to remind him of that," Penguins left wing Matt Cooke said.

THE ODDS ARE

The three Eastern Conference division winners are out of the Stanley Cup playoffs, leaving the defending champion Penguins holding home-ice advantage until the Stanley Cup Final. A look at the current postseason odds:

5:2 — ODDS ON PENS TO DEFEND THE CUP (they were 6:1 going into the first round)

5:1 — ODDS OF PENS-WINGS III IN THE FINAL (they were 20:1 going into the first round)

9:4 — ODD THAT ROSSI'S PENS-OVER-HABS IN 5 PICK IS CORRECT

odds to win conn smythe trophy as playoff mvp:

1. Sidney Crosby (PIT) — 11:4

2. Evgeni Malkin (PIT) — 5:1

3. Marc-Andre Fleury (PIT) — 5:1

4. Daniel Sedin (VAN) — 6:1

5. Patrick Kane (CHI) — 6:1

6. Jonathan Toews (CHI) — 6:1

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