It's a series that, to the frustration of both sides, has unfolded in a succession of short, disjointed episodes - tantalizing flashes allowing each team to think, wrongly, they've got it all sorted out.
Logic and reason can indeed be suspended when it comes to analyzing the Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens; no trend is lasting, no pattern ingrained.
As recently as four days ago the Habs looked every inch the beaten team, but if the Caps had a feeling it was all coming together, Montreal's efficient, watertight 2-1 win in Game 5 rendered all that inoperative.
That the Canadiens, one of the NHL's premier Jekyll-and-Hyde acts all year, would have trouble finding consistency is one thing, but the regular-season champion Caps?
"Do you fault the team that's not playing well, or credit the team that is?" said Montreal winger Michael Cammalleri, who leads the team with seven points in five games. "I think at different points either team's been able to get on their runs. It's just that when you play a team as dangerous as them, we've got to sustain our runs longer than they do."
Washington coach Bruce Boudreau - who coached Cammalleri in the minors - said of the Habs before his team flew to Montreal for tonight's Game 6: "They're a team that could either go out in the first round or win the Stanley Cup."
Perhaps. But few would have predicted the same comment might apply to the President's Trophy winners, who continue to lead the first round series 3-2 but suddenly seem a good distance short of their dominant best.
While Montreal will again be playing to stay alive, the top-seeded Caps are playing for an increasingly combustible coach, and amid the rising volume of whispers over their suitability as Stanley Cup contenders, playing a Game 7 wouldn't help matters.
It follows that the Canadiens are doing their best to step up the psychological pressure. Noting the Caps are strong favourites to hoist a well-known piece of silverware come June, Cammalleri mused the weight of expectation must be heavy, because "if they don't [win] then what?"
Self-belief and confidence are fragile edifices, but the Habs feel they've done some shoring up in the last few days.
"We've had spurts where we felt like we were where we should be in terms of our level," centre Dominic Moore said. "We know it's there."
Veteran defencemen Roman Hamrlik and Marc-André Bergeron were benched for large swaths of the third period; both will be front and centre tonight.
"I should know better," said Hamrlik, who is having a miserable series and may again have to make do without regular partner Jaroslav Spacek (virus). "I just have to compete and be ready every shift."
Washington also has issues with underperforming players - 40-goal man Alexander Semin has just one assist, as does linemate Tomas Fleischmann - and could seek to shuffle the deck.
The Canadiens also need to continue their penalty-killing magic - after boasting the league's most dangerous man-advantage in the regular season, the Caps are snoring along at a 1-for-24 clip.
Though the Habs are coming home for tonight's game, there's been no benefit to playing on one's own ice in this series.
The home team is 1-4 so far - a wild, 6-5 overtime win by the Capitals in which Montreal blew a three-goal lead.
Boudreau dryly noted early in the series that home ice "isn't like the 70s, when [fans]would beat you over the head if you skated near the glass."
Montreal coach Jacques Martin concurred yesterday, saying" "You think of Chicago Stadium, Boston Garden, or Buffalo . . . small ice surfaces, fans on top of you. It was really an intimidating factor to play in those places. Now all the buildings are the same dimensions."Report Typo/Error