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Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechin, of Russia, scores pass Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price during third period Game 4 NHL Eastern Conference quarter-finals hockey action Wednesday, April 21, 2010 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechin, of Russia, scores pass Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price during third period Game 4 NHL Eastern Conference quarter-finals hockey action Wednesday, April 21, 2010 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Stephen Brunt

New goalie, same results Add to ...

It is the coaching Hail Mary, the classic what-the-hell move at a time when there's not much left to lose.

Sit down the goaltender who got you there, albeit by the skin of your teeth. Bring in the other guy, brilliant, star-crossed, once beloved, micro-analyzed, not yet the sum of all of those fevered expectations and crazy comparisons and therefore everyone's favourite whipping boy.

Because, who knows? Because perhaps lightning will strike, perhaps a guy who had won all of two games in calendar year 2010 might go out there cold and steal one from the best regular season team in the NHL and at least forestall what surely seemed inevitable.

Thus Jacques Martin played his last big card in the Montreal Canadiens' first round playoff series against the Washington Capitals at the Bell Centre here last night.

Emotionally devastated by their collapse in game two when they had the Caps on the ropes in Washington, the Habs had gone into freefall, down 2-1 entering Game 4 at home, but in a hole that seemed much deeper than that. No one was pretending that they could lose another and still have a chance to win a series in which they were prohibitive underdogs from the start.

So out of the net came Jaroslav Halak, quite possibly for the final time in the bleu, blanc et rouge, since this summer the town and the team and especially the salary cap probably won't be big enough for his aspirations.

In came Carey Price, who in a city where the emotional ebb and flow around this game is more operatic than anywhere else on earth has become an object of absolutely conditional love. Be great and win and be adored. Do anything less and be reviled, be mocked, be blamed for your sins and everyone else's. No in-between.

For a while the goaltending gambit worked, albeit not in the traditional sense, since Price wasn't required to steal much of anything. Instead, his teammates seemed invigorated by his presence, and played hard.

The teams traded goals in the first period, the Caps first, with Alexander Ovechkin scoring on a wrist shot that would get by most goalies in this league on most nights, and the Canadiens replying on Mike Cammalleri's second goal of the series.

The Canadiens had trouble with the Capitals' superior size and strength when the puck was in their own end, but had their moments on the counterattack, and made Washington look vulnerable in retreat.

In the second period, play shifted their way, and they dictated. The Capitals seemed a touch unfocused, like a team not all that concerned at this stage in what they hope will be a long spring, while Montreal was appropriately desperate. Only some stellar work by Washington goalie Semyon Varlamov held the Habs to a 2-1 lead, though they were on the power play as the period drew to a close.

Mike Knuble's shorthanded score with six seconds left - a clean chance off a 2-on-1 on which Price had no shot - was predictably the killer, the kind of goal that makes a team feel as though all of its good work is for naught.

"It's sickening," Montreal defenceman Marc-André Bergeron said afterwards. "We were there the whole game. We had our teeth in the apple and it smelled like a win."

Near the halfway point of the final frame it all came apart for Montreal, Ovechkin putting the Capitals ahead, Jason Chimera making it a two-goal lead a little less than a minute later, and Price, in a moment that summed up his entire season, dragging the puck out of the net and firing it at his opponents as they celebrated, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, which if nothing else, drained two more precious minutes off the clock.

He drew another, by-then meaningless penalty for the same offence in what figured to be the Canadiens' final few seconds on home ice this season - the score, thanks to two empty net goals, was 6-3 Washington - and with the building near empty, there was hardly a soul left to boo.

Just a lone heckler up in the cheap seats, offering up one of those taunting, sarcastic chants, "Ca-rey!, Ca-rey!" It has certainly been heard within these walls before, though this time no one else joined in.

 

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