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Montreal Canadiens' Tomas Plekanec, centre is congratulated by teammates Hal Gill, left, and Mike Cammalleri following an empty-net goal against the Washington Capitals during third period of Game 6 NHL Eastern Conference quarter-finals hockey action Monday, April 26, 2010 in Montreal. The Canadiens beat the Capitals 4-1 to tie the best-of-seven series 3-3 to force a seventh and deciding game. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Montreal Canadiens' Tomas Plekanec, centre is congratulated by teammates Hal Gill, left, and Mike Cammalleri following an empty-net goal against the Washington Capitals during third period of Game 6 NHL Eastern Conference quarter-finals hockey action Monday, April 26, 2010 in Montreal. The Canadiens beat the Capitals 4-1 to tie the best-of-seven series 3-3 to force a seventh and deciding game. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Roy MacGregor

Montreal makeover paying dividends Add to ...

Disrespectful," complained the Washington Capitals.

The Capitals media relations department was referring to a rather childish act outside the Bell Centre - the burning, stomping and cigarette-butting of an Alexander Ovechkin jersey prior to Game 6 - but they could just as well have said it about what was going on inside the rink.

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Not the gratuitous "O-vie sucks! O-vie sucks!" chants that rippled periodically through the stands, but the reality of what was being witnessed here by 21,273 and millions more on television.

Montreal 4, Washington 1.

"A fabulous night," said Mike Cammalleri, who scored the first two Montreal goals.

It was indeed - but he was not talking about his own performance. Rather that of goaltender Jaroslav Halak.

"He was above and beyond the call of duty."

He had to be, stopping 53 of 54 shots while Montreal managed only 22 shots on Washington's net.

Really, though, what on earth was the winning-est team in hockey, a team that took the Eastern Conference's regular-season crown by a remarkable 18 points, doing losing, again, to a team that surely went through more convulsions in a single season than any NHL club in history?

Consider what happened to the Montreal Canadiens in what should have been a blissful centennial year: they got new owners when a group led by the Molson family took over from George Gillett; they got a new general manager when Bob Gainey relieved himself of duties and Pierre Gauthier stepped in; they got a new coach when Gainey fired Guy Carbonneau and in the off-season brought in Jacques Martin; they lost their captain, Saku Koivu, when he was let go to free agency and never did get around to appointing a new captain; they lost their star attractions in Koivu and Alexei Kovalev and replaced them with "stars" most had never heard of; they let an astonishing 10 unsigned players go over summer and brought in so many new faces they had to play the exhibition season with "Hello, I'm _____" stuck on the fronts of the their jerseys; they ended the year with their backup goalie, Halak, having to take over from anointed No. 1 goaltender Carey Price….

The Montreal Canadiens were not even picked to make the playoffs by most experts; the Washington Capitals were absolutely picked to make the playoffs and chosen by many experts to march all the way to the Stanley Cup.

How is it, then, that as of Monday night in Montreal, this series stood at three games apiece? And not only that, but with Montreal having momentum now on its side as it heads back to Washington and Wednesday's deciding Game 7.

"It's do or die," said an exhausted Halak, "but still we've got nothing to lose."

Wasn't it just a few months ago that they were saying that the new Canadiens - Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, Cammalleri - were simply too small to amount to much in today's NHL?

Halak himself is not large, but this may have been the biggest game he ever played. His performance this night - standing ovation after standing ovation - might rank with individual performances by the likes of college student Ken Dryden in 1971 and a winking Patrick Roy in 1993, the last time any Canadian team won the Stanley Cup.

During one second-period Washington power play, much of it five-on-three, Halak faced superb chances by Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green and the Imperial Army of the Galactic Empire - and turned aside everything shot his direction.

"I thought if we were going to score," said Washington coach Bruce Boudreau, "it might be there.

"We were trying to be too cute."

The frustration of the Capitals was visible even through their ragged, early-in-the-playoffs beards. And no wonder. During the regular season, this was the NHL's best power play, boasting a success rate slightly over 25 per cent.

After Monday night's game it stands at a dismal 1-for-30.

Asked if he thought his team was getting into the heads of the Washington players, Cammalleri considered a moment and agreed with a smile - "but in a respectful way."

If the players have become frustrated, it is nothing compared to the seething Boudreau must be doing this morning. He has already accused his team of having "four or five passengers" along for the ride - none more obvious than 40-goal scorer Semin, who hasn't scored now in 13 straight playoff games.

Another curiosity - for the second straight playoff spring - is the play of Green, listed last week as one of three finalists for the Norris Trophy awarded annually to the league's best defenceman. Green's defensive display has been weak, and he has but three assists. Ovechkin has been getting points, five goals and four assists in the six games, but has not been anywhere near the force anticipated when the first-round match was drawn against the Montreal Canadiens.

You know, the team with the new owners, new general manager, new coach, new players - and no captain.

A few more outings like this and they will be asking "Who will raise the Stanley Cup?"

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

 

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