Sunday, June 20, 2010
The 2009-2010 season, by the "tens" -- Ten Games That Mattered: Montreal at Washington, April 17th
April 17: Montreal at Washington, Game 2, Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
The Result: Capitals 6 – Canadiens 5 (OT)
The Background: A number one seed facing a number eight seed at home should not have the word “desperate” attached to it in Game 2 of the opening round of the playoffs. However, these being the Capitals, with a long history of playoff disappointment, losing Game 1 in overtime to the Montreal Canadiens put the club in a must-win position. Four times in franchise history the Caps dropped the first two games of a playoff series, and in none of them did they come back to win (correction: as our anonymous commenter points out, the Caps did lose the first two games to the Rangers last year and came back to win, making it one in five tries...our short term memory is not what it was). In fact, they ended up being swept in two of those series and won only a single game in the other two. Dropping the first two games at home, regardless of the relative seedings of the teams, would likely spell a quick and quiet exit from the playoffs for the league’s top regular season team.
Why It Mattered: If the Caps were desperate, they did not respond with resolve but rather with jitters to start the game. Brian Gionta got the visitors off and running early, potting a goal on the Canadiens’ first shot at the one-minute mark, a drive that ticked off the blade of defenseman Tom Poti’s stick and dipped under goalie Jose Theodore’s pads. The Caps followed up by feeding five shots at Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak, but only one of them coming from inside of 30 feet from the net. That served as prelude to Andrei Kostitsyn collecting a loose puck at the Capitals’ line, darting toward the middle, and rifling a shot off the goalpost and behind Theodore on the Canadiens’ second shot of the game. The puck clanging off the post was almost the bell ringing on the end of Theodore’s night and perhaps the end of his Capitals career as Semyon Varlamov hopped over the boards to replace Theodore in net for the second consecutive playoff season.
The string of four unanswered Montreal goals, going back to the third period of Game 1, was ended when the Canadiens got sloppy with the puck. Andrei Markov tried to feed the puck from the left point to Andrei Kostitsyn in the middle, but Kostitsyn lost his focus for a split-second, allowing the puck to hop over his stick and onto the stick of Tomas Fleischmann. The Caps winger found Eric Fehr breaking behind the Montreal defense and hit him cleanly for a breakaway. Fehr outraced Marc-Andre Bergeron and flipped the puck past Halak to halve the Canadiens’ lead, making it a game again.
Well, sort of. After the intermission, Kostitsyn atoned for his error at the 8:54 mark to restore the Habs two-goal margin, then completed his hat trick with only 2:16 left in the second period on a power play to give the Canadiens a seemingly insurmountable three goal lead going into the third period, except…
With the clock approaching 90 seconds left in the period, Joe Corvo fired a shot from the right point that sailed wide on the far side and around to Nicklas Backstrom on the left wing boards. Backstrom corralled the puck, took a couple of steps down the boards, wound up, held his position as Mike Knuble worked himself into screening position, then fired the puck past the shielded Halak to get the Caps within two at the second intermission.
The third period became a showcase for a most unlikely player – unlikely, that is, if you weren’t aware of his ability to step up in big games so far in his young career. Less than three minutes into the final period Mathieu Darche tried to clear the puck out of the Montreal end but managed only to put the puck on the stick of Capitals defenseman John Carlson. The young defenseman looked for a shooting opportunity and not finding one, coolly took a step to his right to avoid a sliding Darche. Carlson then wound and fired, the puck sailing off a leaping Matt Bradley trying to avoid the shot and into a clot of bodies at the Canadiens’ crease. From there, Alex Ovechkin poked the puck under Halak to get the Caps within a goal.
The momentum that had been swinging toward the Caps since the last two minutes of the second period swung further in that direction when a scrum broke out at the 3:30 mark of the period. Things started as a result of Benoit Pouliot splitting the Caps defense and getting a shot on Varlamov just before Pouliot, Varlamov, and two Caps piled into the net. As they were untangling, Brian Gionta and Alex Ovechkin got tangled up, then Scott Gomex went looking for Ovechkin. After some milling around at the boards, Tom Poti and Gomez went at it in one of the more unlikely fights one might imagine.
The Caps drew some more strength in an odd way by then killing off a penalty to Alexander Semin for tripping Bergeron. Then the Caps did it the way you would draw it up. Ovechkin rushed down the right side of the ice, pushing the Canadiens’ defense back as Mike Knuble was driving to the net. Ovechkin got a shot off, but it was blocked by defenseman Roman Hamrlik. The loose puck was won by Ovechkin, who then centered the puck for Nicklas Backstrom, sneaking in behind Tomas Plekanec. Backstrom converted the feed into a shot that eluded Halak, and the Caps were even.
The momentum did not last long, or at least long enough. Plekanec, a consistent thorn in the Caps’ side over his career, got the visitors back on top with a goal with just over five minutes to go. It looked as if that two-games-to-none curse was going to visit the Caps once more. But with the clock showing less than two minutes left in regulation, Mike Cammalleri slashed the stick out of the hands of Alex Ovechkin, a delayed penalty call coming as a result. Nicklas Backstrom took control of the puck before Montreal could get a whistle, snaking his way through the neutral zone and over the Montreal blue line. From there he dished the puck to his left onto the stick of Carlson, who used defenseman Josh Gorges as a screen and wristed the puck over Halak’s pad to tie the game with just 81 seconds left in regulation.
Overtime didn’t last long. Tom Poti got the last play started by sending the puck up ice from deep in the Caps’ end to Mike Knuble exiting the zone. Knuble gave the puck a gentle push up to Nicklas Backstrom, then made a bee line for the net. Knuble’s rush toward the net had the effect of backing off the Montreal defense and perhaps providing a bit of a distraction for Halak. Backstrom made the most of the opportunity by skating in and sending a wrist shot through the legs of Hamrlik, over the glove of Halak, and off the post for the game-winner 31 seconds into overtime, tying the series and perhaps saving the Caps’ season.
The Takeaway: Ovechkin and Backstrom – the go-to guys with the 100-point seasons – finished the night with four points apiece. They switched roles in doing it, Ovechkin getting a goal and three assists, Backstrom getting the hat trick and an assist. Theirs were inspiring performances for a team that demonstrated an ability to come back from deficits all season, even multi-goal deficits in the third period. But for all the fireworks off the sticks of Ovechkin and Backstrom, the performance of John Carlson was an announcement that he was going to be a force to be reckoned with on this team as well. Ovechkin and Backstrom might have earned the stars for the game, but Carlson – with his uncanny sense of timing – might have been the hero.