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Washington Capitals Alex Ovechkin, left, checks Montreal Canadiens Tomas Plekanec during first period Game 3 NHL Eastern Conference quarter-finals hockey action Monday, April 19, 2010 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Washington Capitals Alex Ovechkin, left, checks Montreal Canadiens Tomas Plekanec during first period Game 3 NHL Eastern Conference quarter-finals hockey action Monday, April 19, 2010 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Habs look to regain composure, focus Add to ...

Perhaps the most eloquent statement on the Montreal Canadiens' unravelling playoffs came from the dispirited fan who hurled his vintage jersey onto the ice at the conclusion of a grim 6-3 loss to the Washington Capitals on Wednesday.

Few and hardy are the supporters who believe they will see NHL hockey at the Bell Centre before next October.

But professional athletes are paid to be optimistic, and so the Canadiens headed to Washington yesterday with their thoughts focused on how to overcome a 3-1 series disadvantage tonight against the Capitals, and knowing the franchise has done just that as recently as 2004 against the Boston Bruins.

"You can't sit and think about what could have been" winger Michael Cammalleri said yesterday. "We're still alive. It's not easy for us. It's a challenge to get up, but that's the fun of the playoffs."

Added defenceman Josh Gorges, "If we get beat it's going to be because we gave it everything we had and it just didn't go our way. We just can't have any letdowns."

The Habs flew to Washington after a team meeting, where they will meet a Caps team that didn't get home until after 4 a.m. yesterday because of bad weather and a three-hour wait for a customs inspection.

"Better fog than ash," deadpanned Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, who gave his players the day off.

As ever, much of the open-line and online talk in Montreal yesterday was about goaltending, particularly given Carey Price's matching set of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in the third period - the first after shooting the puck into a group of celebrating Capitals, and the second for tapping Washington forward Nicklas Backstrom from the bench as he skated past after scoring an empty-netter.

But Price's penalties were of a piece with Tomas Plekanec's ill-advised shoulder into Mike Green's chest on the opening shift, his unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in Game 3 - where he mouthed off at a referee - and Scott Gomez's misconduct in the same game for the same offence.

"It's not one guy, it's not two guys, it's our maturity level as a group, maybe. It's not okay to be doing that. To beat these guys, we have to focus 100 per cent of our energies," Cammalleri said after the game Wednesday.

Sage words, to be sure, but there is a reason for the mounting frustration.

The Caps have scored 17 goals in the past three games, and have outscored the Habs 9-4 in the third period in the series.

Yet in each of the four contests against the Capitals, the Canadiens have had pivotal moments in which they could have taken hold of the game; in all but one case they couldn't.

As Boudreau put it after Game 4, "Game 1 they won. Game 2 they should have won. And tonight they should have won after two periods."

Veteran Roman Hamrlik has seemingly found himself in the thick of each turning point - if the Czech defenceman had any luck, it would be disastrous.

In the second game of the series, Backstrom wired the overtime winner through him and past Jaroslav Halak.

Two nights later, his bungle caused a short-handed 2-on-1 on which Washington scored, deflating Montreal's home crowd and sending the Caps on to victory.

And on Wednesday, Hamrlik knocked down a clearing attempt on the power play, which would have been a good play had the puck not bounced to Boyd Gordon to create a carbon copy of the previous game's short-handed 2-on-1. Naturally the Caps scored.

Montreal coach Jacques Martin said Hamrlik is "probably a player we need more from," which is as close as he comes to calling players out.

Hamrlik's task won't get any easier tonight. He will have to make do without defence partner Jaroslav Spacek - the two were effective at shutting down Washington star Alex Ovechkin.

Spacek is suffering from an unspecified illness and didn't travel with the team, meaning Marc-André Bergeron and his minus-8 rating for the series will once again be on the blueline.

With a report from The Canadian Press



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