Collars must feel like they are shrinking on the Washington Capitals' private plane, although it probably had the side benefit of being a nice, quiet ride home last night.
After waltzing to a 3-1 playoff series lead against the Montreal Canadiens with three wins in a row, the NHL's regular season champions have lost two and are suddenly facing Game 7 - the fourth consecutive time they have been stretched to the limit in the postseason. They have prevailed just once to this point.
As Michael Cammalleri of the Canadiens prophesied before the game yesterday, "Things change quick in this business."
Yes, they do. With last night's comprehensive 4-1 win over the Capitals, the not-dead-yet Habs are on the cusp of a thrilling upset against a team that finished 33 points ahead of them in the regular season standings.
Habs goaltender Jaroslav Halak can be said to have fully recovered from a spell in which he gave up eight goals on 30 shots earlier in the series - he made a career-high 53 saves and has now stopped 89 of the last 91 pucks shot on him. Perhaps the Caps should have eased up on shooting the puck. Halak is now 8-0 this season when facing more than 45 shots.
"He was the difference, pure and simple. … That's going to be on ESPN Classics and TSN Classics tomorrow," Cammalleri said.
If the story of this game was goaltending, it was also a tale of a team with growing cohesiveness playing against a squad whose marquee names - Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Nicklas Backstrom - are inching closer and closer to the periphery.
Semin has now gone 13 playoff games without a goal, and Ovechkin was held off the scoresheet despite tallying eight shots.
"We had quality chances to score, but unless we get some people in front of [Halak]to screen him rather than look for the tip, we're not going to score," disconsolate Washington defenceman Mike Green said. "He stood on his head."
Much ink has been spilled over the dismal Washington power-play - which at 1-for-30 is about as toothless as Caps forward Eric Bélanger , who lost seven of his chompers after taking a stick to the mouth in Game 5.
Last night, the Caps squandered six opportunities - including, unusually, a trio of diving calls on the Canadiens.
But it's tough to score against a swarming team that has killed penalties as cunningly and fearlessly as the Habs.
Defenceman Hal Gill, in particular, has used his reach, dexterous stick, and unique ability to take up space - he's 6 foot 7 - to seal off passing lanes, intercept passes and clear the front of the net.
And with Halak being alternately brilliant and fortunate - his puck-handling is always an adventure and last night he bobbled an innocuous Ovechkin shot that nearly bounced by - the task gets exponentially harder.
Halak was simply outstanding as the Canadiens killed off a 5-on-3 penalty in the first period - the Caps' league-leading regular season man-advantage scored more goals in that situation than any other team this past season - and ratcheted up the sense of frustration on the Washington bench.
"We just got in their way, more than blocking shots I think we were discouraging them," Gill said, adding that Halak "was huge for us."
And the Canadiens were also intractable on a second-period power-play kill in which the Caps bombarded the Montreal net, with Green hitting the post.
For the second consecutive game, Montreal scored two in the first 10 minutes to put the Caps on their heels.
Cammalleri scored his first of two this night on a first-period power play, and added a second past Caps goalie Semyon Varlamov on a weak glove-side shot that had Washington coach Bruce Boudreau pacing behind the Caps bench.
And when Maxim Lapierre made the score 3-0 by whistling a slapper past Varlamov early in the fourth period, Boudreau was left with a dazed look.
Though Eric Fehr scored his third of the series for Washington in the third, this game was over by the time Tomas Plekanec scored into an empty net - on a pass from Cammalleri - in the final minute.Report Typo/Error