Game 3, Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Series (series even, 1-1)
April 19 vs. Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre
Time: 7:00 pm TV: CSN HD, TSN Radio: Caps Radio 106.7 FM, Fox 1370 AM, WFED 1500 and 920 and XM Listen Live Mobile: Listen to the Game Here Pregame: Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m. and Two-Man Advantage pre-game show at 3:00 p.m., both on www.washingtoncaps.com
Montreal Canadiens (39-33-10, 88 points)
Washington Capitals (54-15-13, 121 points)
Down three goals late in the second period of Saturday’s Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Series, the Caps were teetering on the precipice of falling into an 0-2 hole against the Habs with the series headed back to Montreal for Monday’s Game 3.
Backstrom recorded the first hat trick of his NHL career – regular season or playoffs – to help lead the Caps to a wild, 6-5 comeback triumph over the Canadiens. Backstrom’s three goals came in a span of 22:08 and his third one was the game-winner at the 31-second mark of the extra session.
The Caps’ brilliant pivot had lots of help. Alex Ovechkin scored a key third-period goal and added three assists a game after being held pointless and without a shot on goal in Thursday’s Game 1. Tom Poti revved up his teammates with an inspiring scrap against Canadiens center Scott Gomez. And 20-year-old John Carlson authored the biggest goal of his nascent NHL career when he beat beleaguered Montreal netminder Jaroslav Halak with just 1:21 remaining in regulation.
As the Caps travel to Montreal to meet the Habs for Game 3 on Monday, coach Bruce Boudreau and his staff are faced with a weighty decision. Which Washington goaltender should start Game 3 at Bell Centre?
“I will sit down and talk to the [assistant] coaches,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “I didn’t want to talk to them about it last night. We have a video session and then we have a long plane ride. During the course of that one of them will know.”
Ex-Canadien Jose Theodore started each of the first two games of the series. He was excellent in a losing effort in Game 1, stopping 35 of 38 shots and keeping the Caps in the game when they had some difficulty playing in their own end in the second period. But Theodore was dinged for two goals on as many shots in the early going of Game 2. Boudreau wisely pulled Theodore in favor of Russian rookie Semyon Varlamov, who had a strong stretch in goal for the Capitals during last spring’s Stanley Cup playoffs.
“I didn’t fault him,” says Boudreau of Theodore’s Game 2 performance. “I think we came out with a lot of energy and anticipation and that’s a pretty deflating goal when you’re coming out and you’re all excited about playing and then the first shots goes in. And then the next shot they get goes in. So that’s why I made the change.
“One thing about Theo is he’s lasted in this league because he can put that stuff behind him and play great when we ask him to play great again.”
Since leaving Montreal in a trade with Colorado in March, 2006, Theodore has started just one game at Bell Centre and has played in just two. But Theodore has been excellent on the road this season, going 16-5-3 with a 2.53 GAA and a .920 save pct.
Since Jan. 12, Theodore is 10-0-2 on the road. In his 20 road starts this season, he held the opposition to three or fewer goals 17 times and limited them to two or fewer tallies 11 times.
Varlamov made his NHL debut at Bell Centre on Dec. 13, 2008, earning a 2-1 win in front of a packed house and a national television audience on a Hockey Night in Canada game. Varlamov is just 6-2-4 with a 3.05 GAA and an .899 save pct. on the road this season.
“I think we said before the series started that if we were to go anywhere in this we’d probably have to use both goalies,” says Boudreau. “I’m sure we’re still going to use both goalies. Whether Varly plays Monday or Theo plays Monday, I think they’re both going to play again. That’s why we’ve got to keep them sharp.”
On the other side of the goaltending spectrum in this series, the Caps appear to have at least started the process of solving Montreal netminder Jaroslav Halak. Halak stopped 54 of the first 57 shots (.947 save pct.) he saw in this series, but the Caps have poured five goals past him in just 27 shots (.815 save pct.) since.
“You just have to make some traffic in front of him and find the rebounds,” says Ovechkin of Halak. “He gives up lots of rebounds I watched the replay after [Eric Fehr] scored the [Capitals’ first] goal. His arm was shaking when he drank water. He’s nervous. He knows the pressure is on him and it’s a good sign for us.”
Halak played very well at Bell Centre this season, going 14-6-2 with three shutouts, a 2.32 GAA and a .917 save pct. He allowed two or fewer goals 12 times in 22 starts on home ice. Halak went 9-2-1 in his first 12 home starts of 2009-10 and just 5-4-1 in his last 10 at home.
Montreal has drawn first blood in each of the first two games of the series and the Canadiens have forced the Caps to play catch-up hockey.
During the 2009-10 regular season, the Capitals led at some point in 69 of their 82 games. But in the 133:50 of hockey in this series with Montreal, the Capitals have been on top for a total of just 6:47.
Washington has scored eight goals in the first two games of this series without getting any power play goals, and without getting any points from defenseman Mike Green and winger Alexander Semin. Green never went more than two games without a point during the regular season, and Semin twice went three games without finding the scoresheet, but never more than three.
The Caps don’t care who contributes and who doesn’t at this point, as long as they’re winning games.
“If one guy didn’t play well, a different guy steps up,” says Ovechkin. “It’s all about the results, it’s all about winning right now.”
Only twice during the regular season did the Caps go as many as three games without netting a power play goal, and they never went more than three games without an extra-man tally. Going back to the end of the regular season, Washington is now without a power play strike in four straight games (0-for-14).
Including the playoffs, the Capitals are 3-for-24 (12.5%) with the extra man in six games against Montreal this season.
“Well we’ve gone through two or three stretches where we go 0-for-15 or something, and then the next thing you know we’re 5-for-7,” says Boudreau of his team’s power play struggles. “Even though we didn’t score and our entries weren’t what we wanted, I thought we had some great looks [in Game 2] and we just missed some chances. It’s not as is if I’m dismally disappointed in our power play because they’re working at it and they’re trying to get stuff done. They’re having a modicum of success, meaning that they’re getting a couple of chances during the power play. It’s not as if Montreal has it in our zone the whole time.
“[The Canadiens] are quick and they’re reacting quickly to our passes. They’re obviously well-coached and well-schooled as to how we bring the puck out and they’re adjusting very well at that.”
Ovechkin has made no secret of his love for the city of Montreal. He was the talk of the town in January 2009 when the Habs hosted the NHL All-Star Game, but this time, he’s on a business trip.
“It’s playoffs,” declares the Caps’ captain. “It’s not party time. It’s all about business, it’s all about hockey. I am going there for winning and I don’t think about anything else.”
Notes: Ex-Caps center Glen Metropolit may be nearing a return to action for the Habs. Metropolit suffered a separated shoulder on March 27, but he has been skating with the Canadiens and could be a game-time decision for Monday’s Game 3.