MONTREAL -- Please, don't blame defenseman Kris Letang for the Penguins' 3-2 loss Thursday night to the Montreal Canadiens even though his own-goal in the third period turned out to be the difference at the raucous Bell Centre. Put the blame where it rightly belongs. Put it on center Sidney Crosby, center Evgeni Malkin and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, the team's three biggest stars who didn't play much like stars on a night when the overmatched, but gritty Canadiens climbed back into what has become a taut second-round playoff series.
Fleury gave up a terrible goal early in the game. Crosby didn't score again and still doesn't have a goal four games into the series, which is now tied, 2-2, heading into Game 5 Saturday night at Mellon Arena. Malkin didn't get a goal for the fifth time in six games and couldn't score on a breakaway with 4 minutes left.
Penguins management is paying big, big money for more than that.
It also just gave Letang a four-year, $14-million extension, but it's hard for me to blame him for this loss. Montreal's Brian Gionta threw a centering pass toward Fleury's crease only to see it clang off Letang's right skate and skip into the Penguins' net for the deciding goal with 16:20 left.
"It happens," Fleury said.
There still was plenty of time for the Penguins to tie the score, maybe even win it. But they couldn't solve Canadiens goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who is doing to them pretty much what he did to the Washington Capitals in the first round. He has put his team in position to steal a second consecutive series from a more powerful, more explosive opponent.
Most egregious from the Penguins' standpoint was Malkin's failed breakaway. Is it unfair to expect him to score there? Wasn't he the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoffs MVP last season? Great players live to be in that situation. More often than not, they respond. That's why they are stars.
Not this time for Malkin.
But Crosby is a star, too. He also didn't deliver, at least not by putting the puck in the Montreal net. Funny, I would have bet the house that he would have a big game to silence the Bell Centre crowd that treated him rudely in Games 3 and 4 by frequently chanting "Crosby [stinks]!" and booing each time he touched the puck. If you didn't know better, you would never guess he was a Canadian sports hero for the ages just three months earlier when he scored the winning goal in overtime against the United States to secure the gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics.
Crosby did some good things Thursday night, just as he does in every game. His assist led to a Chris Kunitz power-play goal that gave the Penguins' a 2-1 lead in the first period. Later, he forced a slashing penalty by Canadiens defensemen Hal Gill.
But sooner preferably than later, Crosby needs to beat Halak and score a goal. It's hard to believe he has just three assists in the series after getting five goals and nine assists in the first-round series against Ottawa and scoring 51 goals during the regular season.
"You always feel like that," Crosby said when asked if he needs to get a goal soon. "But I wouldn't change the way I'm playing. Honestly, I wouldn't change anything. You just have to keep doing the same things and hope you get results. You've got to trust your skills. You've got to trust what you do."
Then, there was Fleury.
He played so brilliantly in the third period of the Penguins' 2-0 win in Game 3 Tuesday night, robbing the Canadiens' Mike Cammalleri and Tomas Plekanec of goals with spectacular saves. But there was nothing spectacular about his performance on this night.
The first goal by Montreal rookie Tom Pyatt just 2:34 into the game was as weak as they come. Pyatt, coming deep down the left wing, threw the puck toward the net from a bad angle only to watch in amazement and joy as it squirted through Fleury.
The second Montreal goal by Maxim Lapierre wasn't much better. He beat Fleury with a wraparound to tie things, 2-2, early in the third period. Fleury appeared to get tangled with defenseman Jordan Leopold as he attempted to scurry across his crease to block Lapierre's shot.
That's why I'm not going to blame Letang's own-goal for the loss.
Letang refused to meet with the media to discuss what happened, but Fleury took a handful of tough questions, especially about the Pyatt goal.
"It was a shot ... I don't know how ... it went in," he said.
Fleury truly seemed baffled.
In one sense, this loss was hard to explain. The Penguins totally outplayed the Canadiens for two periods, outshooting them 15-6 in the first and 11-3 in the second only to lead just 2-1. Not only that, every close call by the referees went the Penguins' way. The crowd became so infuriated that it threw trash on the ice after the Canadiens' Mathieu Darche was called for a tripping penalty midway through the third period.
For a minute, I thought I was at a West Virginia basketball game.
It was a pretty classless display by smart hockey fans who should know better.
"They hung around," Crosby said of the Canadiens' effort in those first two periods. "If you look at it, that was probably the difference."
That and this:
The Penguins' stars hardly shined bright.
They had better be better the rest of the series or their team could be in for a big fall.
Ron Cook: email@example.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.