Washington Capitals-Montreal Canadiens: Habs Tie Series, Heading to D.C.
It is a word that appeared on these pages quite early in the season over six months ago to describe the type of season we expected from the Montreal Canadiens. It's exactly what fans got.
So should we be surprised at the drama unfolding before us in the Habs' first round playoff series with Washington?
After an unexpected Montreal win in Game One, the city was alive with playoff fever. Emotions were ratcheted up in the next game, as some wondered, "Could they?"
Do you remember what you were feeling almost two-thirds of the way through Game Two? With two minutes remaining in the second period, the Canadiens had a 4-1 lead. Did you allow yourself to think about a 2-to-0 series lead coming back to Montreal?
Those emotions were quickly squashed with the Capitals taking advantage of some poor goaltending, scoring five goals in 22 minutes. Habs' fans were angry about what could have been.
In Game Three, Jaroslav Halak wasn't any better surrendering three goals on 13 shots, digging a huge hole for his team. With the Capitals up two games to one, many began expecting a short, five game series. A cloud of sadness hovered over the city.
In Game Four, the turning point was the Canadiens' giving up a late period, short-handed goal—the second in two games. With the Capitals one win away from clinching, resignation set in among fans. It would be an impossible feat for the Habs to win the series.
Not so impossible now, is it? For 21,273 in the Bell Centre and Habs fans around the world, the roller coaster called the Montreal Canadiens was rather exhilarating tonight.
"No one even gave us a chance, but tonight, we stuck to the game plan, we played hard and it paid off at the end. It feels great, but there's another game ahead of us and we have to get ready," said Halak.
The game plan called for the Habs to get out to an early lead. They did that with two goals by Mike Cammalleri, scored before the first period was 10 minutes old. Cammalleri now has goals in the last three games and five in the series.
Once the Canadiens were ahead, Jacques Martin's troops were content to defend. It was up to the Habs penalty-killers and Halak to preserve the lead. Both were outstanding.
The Capitals' power-play, after being the top unit in the regular season, has one goal in 30 opportunities. Tonight, they were 0-for-6, including a 4-on-3 and a 5-on-3 advantage. Josh Gorges, Tomas Plekanec, and Hal Gill were superb in blocking shots and preventing cross-ice feeds.
The Canadiens defense has been doing an excellent job in front of the crease for the past two games allowing their goaltender to see most everything and keeping Washington shots to the perimeter.
The last line of defense, Halak, was brilliant tonight. It was a career game for Jaro, who set a franchise record for a regulation time playoff game saves with 53.
Alex Ovechkin was less than impressed.
"We make goalies feel unbelievable," he said. "When we played Philadelphia (two years ago), Biron was good. (New York Ranger Henrik) Lundqvist was good last year. And this year we make Halak feel good."
Some pundits disagree with Ovechkin, calling it a performance for the ages. Others, like Habs' alumn Murray Wilson, explain that the shot totals are deceiving with Ovechkin, Joe Corvo, and Alexander Semin combining for 25 shots, but having only a few good scoring chances.
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. How we remember tonight's outing will depend on the next game and beyond. Just as Halak's sub-par play from earlier in the series has been mostly erased by his stellar performance in this game, tonight's memories will fade if it doesn't lead to a meaningful series outcome for the Canadiens.
Will anyone remember the 54-save overtime shutout by Colorado's Craig Anderson in Game Three against the Sharks by the time the playoffs make it to the second round now that the Avalanche have been eliminated?
In the unfair world of sports, Halak must follow-up tonight's game with another strong effort in Game Seven. Let's hope he isn't required to make 50-plus saves.
At the other end of the ice, Semyon Varlamov wasn't sharp, giving up three goals on 21 shots. Curiously, all three goals came from shots near the same spot on the half-boards to his left.
The fourth goal was scored into an empty net by Tomas Plekanec.
Ice-time was well-managed by the coaching staff. Benoit Pouliot, Marc-Andre Bergeron, and Glen Metropolit all received less than six minutes of ice-time. Bergeron was only on the ice for 36 seconds while the Habs were at even strength.
P.K. Subban played very well in his first playoff game. He tallied an assist, while being limited to 10 minutes. Only once did we see the reckless side of Subban heading to the front of the Capitals goal and getting caught deep in the offensive zone. Fortunately, Washington players were in need of a line change and couldn't take advantage.
That's where the bouquets will end for Jacques Martin and his crew. The best coaches are the ones who anticipate well and are pro-active with adjustments. Coach Martin only makes moves after it is painfully obvious to even the most casual fans that something needs to be done.
Consider Pouliot's poor play, Bergeron's inept defensive skills, and Roman Hamrlik's struggles on the power-play. Martin was slow to react in each situation.
How about Martin's stubborn refusal to insert Ryan O'Byrne into the line-up for the first three games of the series? Isn't it interesting that the Capitals' crease-crashing has not been a major issue since O'Byrne returned?
It's difficult to compliment Martin for some obvious and delayed moves, just as it is to reward the rancher when he closes the barn door after the horses have bolted.
The Canadiens players themselves deserve most of the credit for the win. They defended well, were opportunistic, outhit the Capitals, were much better on faceoffs, and got excellent goaltending.
This roller coaster ride isn't over yet Habs' fans. Get ready to buckle up for Game Seven.
Canadiens and Capitals meet in Washington to decide the series on Wednesday night.
Rocket's three stars
1. Jaroslav Halak
2. Habs' penalty-killers
3. Mike Cammalleri
Special mention: Tomas Plekanec, Josh Gorges, Hal Gill
Player quotes from wire services were used in this report.
(photo credit: Getty)
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