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Montreal Canadiens' Tomas Plekanec celebrates his empty-net goal against the Washington Capitals during the final minutes of the third period of Game 6 NHL Eastern Conference quarter-finals hockey action Monday, April 26, 2010 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Montreal Canadiens' Tomas Plekanec celebrates his empty-net goal against the Washington Capitals during the final minutes of the third period of Game 6 NHL Eastern Conference quarter-finals hockey action Monday, April 26, 2010 in Montreal.

(Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Roy MacGregor

Canadiens eyeing rarefied air Add to ...

It's snowing. It's freezing. People are bundled up as they scurry along Sainte-Catherine - why should anyone be surprised that the second biggest topic of conversation is the Montreal Canadiens? Simple, May arrives this weekend - and the Habs are still alive, proving reports from last summer, fall and winter of their imminent demise to be greatly exaggerated.

Before Tuesday morning's dramatic shift in the weather, Montreal was in spring bloom, the noon crowd soaking up sun in the parks, and the Canadiens were about to go up against the Washington Capitals in Game Six of the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

No one gave them much chance; but then no one gave them much chance to win Game Five, which they did, or Game Four, which they also did - or even to make the playoffs in a year in which the team ended up with new owners, a new general manager, new coach, no captain and flipped half its team to start this season of no expectations.

Monday night, walking along Peel Street to the hotel, you would think Game Seven of the final round had already been won, the streets filled with shirt-sleeved, somewhat drunken fans, cars honking wedding style, riot-ready police stationed in significant groups at the corners.

This is what a single hockey game can do to this city.

But what a game it was, one for the ages, with an outstanding goaltender performance by a 24-year-old Slovakian who was supposed to be, if anywhere, sitting on the end of the bench watching Carey Price fend off the shooters.

It is hard to put Jaroslav Halak's game in perspective. Perhaps he said it best himself when he said, "Some nights the game just seems to be in slow motion and you just think you'll stop everything."

It was, in fact, as far from slow motion as hockey speed can get, a game played at such a pace and intensity that the final score, Montreal 4, Washington Capitals 1, tells nothing of what took place apart from the obvious fact that Montreal won.

The score suggests the Capitals - the NHL's top team during the regular season, the early favourite to go all the way to the Stanley Cup - were off their game. They were not. They outshot the Canadiens 54-22, with Montreal players blocking at least another two dozen threats.

"He shouldn't have to make 50-something saves," Montreal defenceman Hal Gill said.

"We should be better in front of him - but that's how you get wins in the playoffs."

It is indeed. There is no better proof than the Conn Smythe Award that goes to the MVP of the playoffs each year: in the 44 times that it has been awarded, goaltenders have counted for 14.

"Sometimes goalies get into a zone where nothing is going to beat them," Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said after the game. "And he's in that zone. Everything he saw, he was going to stop."

Boudreau's hope, of course, is that Halak finds himself in some other zone tonight - No Standing? Tow-away? Twilight? - and is somewhat comforted by the knowledge that Halak has both stumbled and performed magnificently this series, just as has Washington's Semyon Varlamov.

The difference on the ice surface, as opposed to the nets, has been style of play, with Washington superstars Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Niklas Backstrom and Mike Green all seemingly determined to do it on their own, whereas the Canadiens have bought into coach Jacques Martin's notion that puck control and self-control are what wins hockey games. The league keeps no such statistics, but the average Canadiens pass must be less than half the length of the average Washington, and the number of Montreal passes easily double that of the Capitals.

Tonight at the Verizon Center, it will all come down to one game, perhaps even one goal, most assuredly one save or more that one of these goaltenders would like a second chance on - though both the magnificence and terror of Game Seven is that there is no second chance.

Washington, however, is very familiar with that format, having gone to Game Seven four straight series: against the Flyers, where they lost; against the Rangers, where they won; against the Penguins, where they lost to last year's eventual Stanley Cup champions.

Ovechkin expressed nothing but confidence as his team left the Bell Centre and entered the streets of premature honking.

"I think we played great and we just didn't score," he said. "It's only one guy.

"No panic. Nothing."

Nor were the Canadiens panicking as their plane lined up for de-icing next morning. "To have the opportunity to compete against the best team in the league," Martin said. "I think it's well deserved on our part.

"We'll be prepared."

Martin's Canadiens have the opportunity to do something that has not been done since the current playoff format was adopted back in 1994 - come back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the No. 1 seed.

And the Washington Capitals will have a chance to show why they were the NHL's top team this season.

And put a long-lasting chill on Montreal's street party.

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