The nervous excitement in the city of Montreal is palpable this morning. The surprise of the Montreal Canadiens' 3-2 overtime win over the Washington Capitals on Thursday has morphed into cautious optimism.
And why not?
The Habs were supposed to be swept in four games, right? And, despite playing a horrible first 20 minutes last game the Habs finished strong and pulled out the victory in OT.
The focus since Thursday has clearly been on Caps superstar, Alex Ovechkin. Questions as to why he played so poorly mixed with whispers of him not being 100 percent have been the talk du jour at press conferences.
Despite Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau telling the media hordes that Ovechkin just played a bad game and is not injured, many people are still scratching their heads.
Ovechkin too took full blame for his poor performance and said he needs to be better tonight in Game Two.
So now the stage is set: Ovechkin has to be better tonight.
He said it, his coach said it, and the media and the Canadiens expect it. So can Ovechkin deliver?
Given his skill level and determination, I think the answer is likely "yes." That being said, there is always the possibility that the Habs will shut him down again.
What then, for Washington?
While I fully expect Washington to play a much stronger game against the Habs tonight, I don't think that they exactly played a bad game last time.
So does this mean that the Habs just played a system that worked in neutralizing the Caps' potent offense? Maybe. The fact that Halak stood on his head, yet again, also helped.
Despite having 47 shots against him last game, very few of those shots were second chances or rebounds. This points to the Habs being good and collapsing down-low around Halak, giving up shots from the outside and the point and working to make sure that there are no rebounds to jump on.
So how will the Caps counteract that strategy tonight?
We'll have to see what Boudreau has in store, but suffice it to say that if they decided to try and create more offense off the cycle, they would have a much easier time against the smaller Habs players.
So what happens if the Caps lose tonight?
While I think the chances of the Habs winning a second straight game in Washington are low, there is always the possibility that they will reproduce their result of the last game. And then what? Can you imagine the Caps being down by two games and having to play Game Three in Montreal?
That is a scenario that they would do well to avoid. As such, I believe that tonight's game is the most important game of the season for the Caps. I know they say that Game Three tends to be one of the most important in a series, and that still holds true, but given the pressure on Ovechkin and the Caps, I truly believe that they cannot afford to go down 2-0 in the series.
Moreover, while I still think the Caps will win this series, I think that if the Canadiens can somehow win tonight's game, all bets are off.
A Habs win tonight, in my opinion, will turn all predictions—and the series itself—on their heads. The Habs have already taken home ice advantage away from the Caps, and winning tonight will give them the confidence to know, not think, that they can beat this team.
That being said, I fully expect a Herculean effort from Ovechkin and the Caps tonight, and for the teams to go back to Montreal tied 1-1 in the series.
However, this is the playoffs, and anything can happen. Let's see if the cautious optimism turns into inspired confidence, or comes back down to Earth in the form of grounded reality.
Your move, Ovechkin. Rise to the challenge, or crumble under the pressure.
Tune in tonight to find out.