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Starkey: Pens' run won't be Staal-ed

Jordan Staal or no Jordan Staal, the Penguins are easily the class of what remains of the depleted Eastern Conference.

As such, anything less than a third consecutive trip to the Stanley Cup Final would render this season a miserable failure.

That is not to minimize the absence of Staal, who sustained a foot injury Friday night in a 6-3, series-opening victory over the Montreal Canadiens and is out indefinitely. He is Godzilla on skates this time of year. The Penguins might not be able to win the Cup without him.

But nobody left in the East has the goods to exploit the situation.

Not the Boston Bruins. Not the Philadelphia Flyers. Certainly not the Canadiens, who nearly missed the playoffs for a reason: They're as average as average gets.

People went way overboard in assessing the Canadiens after their stunning first-round upset of the choking-dog Washington Capitals. The prime example was defenseman Hal Gill. If you didn't know better, you'd think Gill had morphed into some freakish combination of Scott Stevens and Larry Robinson.

Come on. He's Hal Gill, a valuable asset at playoff time but hardly a franchise savior. He was minus-10 during the regular season, you know.

Then there was goaltender Jaroslav Hasek, er, Halak, who lasted precisely 45 minutes, 18 seconds before coach Jacques Martin ripped him out of Game 1.

I was willing to allow that Halak, still somewhat of a mystery, could become the NHL's next great goaltender after the way he stoned the Capitals late in that series. But I was more convinced the Penguins would attack him in ways the Capitals could not -- would not -- and make him look ordinary.

That is exactly what they did. They put traffic in front of Halak and playmakers behind him. They changed shot angles. They made him dance from post to post on a power play that deserved "Sweet Georgia Brown" as its background music.

It was a multi-pronged assault.

At the other end, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin did their thing, and even a Staal-less third line inflicted damage.

In the hockey equivalent of a triple play -- only rarer -- Matt Cooke, Pascal Dupuis and Craig Adams combined on a tic-tac-toe goal. Adams has precisely zero goals in 91 regular-season games with the Penguins, by the way, and five goals in 31 playoff games.

"I felt like we pretty much put them in their own end and hemmed them there," Cooke said. "It'll be a focus of ours moving forward, if Jordan is not able to play, just to stay simple and play the way that makes us successful."

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma wanted us to believe the Canadiens were "comfortable" in the way they played against the Capitals.

Comfortable?

No team plans to get outshot 96-38, as the Canadiens were in Games 6 and 7 combined, and spend the majority of its time in the defensive zone. The rope-a-dope might work for one legendary upset -- whether it's Canadiens-Capitals or Ali-Foreman -- but it's hardly a strategy for long-term success.

Gill wasn't buying Bylsma's assessment of the Washington series.

"No, I wouldn't say it was comfortable," Gill said, referring to Game 7, when the Canadiens were outshot, 42-16. "We want to play in the offensive zone."

That didn't happen much Friday night and doesn't figure to happen much anytime soon.

There is no Mike Green to exploit in this series, either.

Montreal's best weapon is its power play, which could be rendered impotent with the loss of expert quarterback Andrei Markov, who apparently injured a knee on a clean Cooke hit in Game 1.

How about that for another example of the Penguins' playoff luck• On a night when one of their best players goes down, the other team's best defenseman does, too.

Luck, of course, is a prerequisite for any team with designs on a Stanley Cup, and the Penguins have enjoyed a heaping portion of it over the past three springs.

In 2008, only the badly beaten-up Flyers stood between the Penguins and a trip to the Final. Last year, the mediocre Carolina Hurricanes upset the top-seeded Boston Bruins and provided all the resistance of a wet paper towel in the conference final.

This year?

This year is unbelievable. The Capitals and the New Jersey Devils, a combined 10-0 against the Penguins during the regular season, did not survive a round. Neither did the likely Vezina Trophy winner, Buffalo's Ryan Miller.

The coast is clear.

The East Coast, anyway.

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