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When it was all said and done, there smiles and elation after what surely qualifies as a famous victory over a much-fancied opponent.

But not anything approaching surprise.

The Montreal Canadiens have played the Washington Capitals tough this year, and snuck out with a 3-2 overtime victory in the opening game of their first round playoff series in the U.S. capital.

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"I don't think it's a surprise. There's a belief in this room that we can win," said Montreal's Mike Cammalleri, "we have a lot of respect for the team over there - and they're going to come out hard on Saturday, but we like our group too."

The talk in the lead-up was all about the new focus and resolve demonstrated by the high-powered Capitals, and how this year would be different.

And yet the Caps are again facing familiar questions over defensive frailty and puzzling over an ill-timed off night from their superstar captain.

Shakespeare once wrote "to thine own self be true," and there is considerable peril in trying to change one's basic nature, as the Capitals may be learning to their considerable alarm.

The NHL's highest-octane offensive machine, led by the boisterous and exuberant Alexander Ovechkin, has vowed to demonstrate its defensive solidity in this post-season, but in the Caps' playoff opener made an uncharacteristic decision to play a conservative trap game to protect a one-goal third period lead.

"I'm not sure they did it deliberately," said Cammalleri, who scored the game's first goal on a first-period power-play. "And I think this is where I give us some credit, we were able to give a pretty good push."

For a team whose stock-in-trade is run-and-gun offence, the decision to try and sit on a 2-1 lead in the third smacked of playing not to lose, and as a result of that - and some familiar defensive frailties - they are the second top seed to have lost home ice advantage in as many nights.

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"We don't want to beat ourselves up. We probably have to be a little more aggressive," said Caps forward Boyd Gordon.

Added goaltender Jose Theodore: "It's not like we thought we would win it in four."

It's not generally an auspicious sign when players change practices and habits that have brought him success and Ovechkin, who said this week that he is trying to conserve his emotions for games and rein himself in - clearly not something that comes easily.

Though he has always played strongly against the Montreal Canadiens, Ovechkin was unusually quiet last night, registering zero shots, and that for only the second time this year.

Afterward, Washington coach Bruce Boudreau was frank in his critique.

"He didn't play good, they gapped up real good on him, but he didn't play well," he said.

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Ovechkin, for his part, said "it's the playoffs. You try to do well every shift. I think we play a great first period . . . we feel good and then we stopped playing. It's okay. It's one game. We'll have 24 hours to think about what we did wrong."

The game was decided when Tomas Plekanec, who earlier this week caused ripples with his suggestion that Theodore isn't a dominant goaltender, whacked a slapshot past his former teammate13:19 into overtime.

Prior to the game, teammates had rubbed out the Czech centre's number 14 on the lineup board and scrawled in a 68 - in reference to countryman and former Pittsburgh and Washington star Jaromir Jagr.

Theodore had responded to Plekanec's jibe by saying "Tomas who? Jagr?"

"I wasn't thinking about it. It was the first day that quote came up in the newspapers. Obviously I didn't like it, but we had a good laugh about it with the guys. And (Theodore) had a good quote too," he said. "I never said anything bad, so my mind was clear."

Habs' goaltender Jaroslav Halak, starting just his second playoff game, made 45 saves to earn the victory, he is now 8-0-1 this year when facing more than 40 shots, and undefeated when the opposing total hits 45.

He was especially brilliant in the first period, limiting the damage as his teammates were badly outplayed.

The 25-year-old Slovak was typically modest in triumph, saying "our guys did a great job"

For a time it looked as though the Caps would escape.

With the game tied 1-1 to start the third, the Caps benefited from a fortuitous bounce and sent their legions of scarlet-clad fans into a frenzy.

After rookie defenceman John Carlson's shot was blocked by Hal Gill, the puck squirted directly onto Mike Knuble's stick, and the big winger slipped a nifty pass to the onrushing Nicklas Backstrom, who snapped a shot into the top corner with just 47 seconds elapsed.

The Caps can be forgiven for thinking they were off to the races, but curiously the league's most vaunted offensive team decided to go the conservative route with the bulk of the third left to play.

That's when Montreal centre Scott Gomez danced through several checkers - mesmerizing Ovechkin with one move - gained the blue line and dished off to linemate Benoit Pouliot, who spotted Brian Gionta on the right side.

Gionta then threw the puck across the goalmouth, where Gomez finished what he started, helped along by a soft back-checking effort by Washington defenceman Mike Green.

In the early going, Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak's stout play kept them in the game as Washington ran rampant and the shot-clock spiraled upward - they would tally 19 in the period.

If the opening frame was one-way traffic, the second period was much harder slogging for the regular season champions.

Montreal outshot their rivals comfortably in the period (13-8) and would have been encouraged as Washington spurned several chances - Backstrom was unlucky to have a high wrist shot glance off Halak's glove, dribble behind him, and agonizingly wide.

Oddly, the catalyst for the Habs' renaissance was a too-many-men penalty, which they were able to kill effectively - the Capitals' league-leading power-play was 0-for-4 this night - and parlay into a sustained flurry of pressure.

A decision to double-shift Cammalleri with fourth-liners Mathieu Darche and Maxim Lapierre also seemed to spur the pushback.

"I think after that first period we just sat around and said 'oh, man, we need to pull up our socks . . . or we're just going to watch them take one-timers all night," Cammalleri said.

The visitors, who were the NHL's worst scoring team while five-on-five this year, looked Capitals-esque after that penalty kill, buzzing around the Washington net and keeping the puck buried deep in the offensive zone.

It was also a role reversal for the goaltenders, and Theodore's turn to assert himself against his former team, which he did in spectacular fashion in denying Plekanec a sure goal after a pretty set-up from Benoit Pouliot.

Then he stoned Darche and Lapierre during an effective shift from the Habs' fourth line.

Later Tom Pyatt was the one left looking skyward as Theodore parried a pair of quick shots.

The Canadiens have made a habit of scoring power-play goals against the Capitals this season, and last night was no different as they opened the scoring with the man-advantage.

Just past the mid-way point of the first, Cammalleri took a cross-ice pass from Andrei Markov and wired a wrist-shot into the top corner over Theodore's left shoulder.

The Caps would respond barely a minute later, when defenceman Joe Corvo's harmless wrist shot from the point found its way through a maze of players and tipped off Halak's stick and in.

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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