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Cullen: Halak turns back Capitals; Habs reach Round Two

Scott Cullen
4/28/2010 11:10:32 PM
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In one of the great upsets in NHL playoff history, the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens knocked off the top-seeded Washington Capitals.

True, the Washington Capitals have a tortured playoff history, surrendering 3-1 series leads all too often, but even in a year in which the Stanley Cup race seemed to be more wide open, few outside of Montreal gave the Canadiens a chance to win the series against the Presidents' Trophy winners.

One of the reasons the Capitals were supposed to be so dangerous was the league's best power play.  In the regular season, the Capitals scored on 25.2% of their power plays.  Montreal was second in the league, at 21.8%.

In the playoffs, Washington was a miserable 1-for-33 (3.0%) with the man advantage and some of their most productive players were held off the scoresheet.

Alexander Semin was the most obvious to miss the mark, as the 40-goal scorer didn't score once on any of his 44 shots on goal.  When combined with 18 shots that missed the net and one more blocked, Semin directed 63 shots on goal in seven games, an average of nine per game.

By way of comparison, Alexander Ovechkin, the league leader in shots on goal during the regular season, directed 560 shots at the opposition goal in 72 games this season, an average of 7.78 per game.

Somehow, some way, Semin should have been able to find the back of the net just once and that could have made the difference for the Capitals.

Norris Trophy nominee Mike Green will take well-deserved heat for his lack of production as well, registering only three assists in seven games after putting up 76 points in 75 regular season games. 

Green came under a lot of criticism for last season's poor playoff performance, when he had nine points and a minus-5 rating in 14 games and he may not have been any better this year.  While his point production wasn't as strong, Green was a plus-1 in the series and, despite Montreal's shot-blocking prowess, he had 23 shots on goal, compared to 24 in 14 games last year.

No matter how the numbers break down, Green quarterbacked Washington's inept power play and has now struggled in back-to-back playoffs.

As the Capitals' leader, Alexander Ovechkin will take criticism for the Caps not advancing, despite putting up ten points in seven games.  Ovechkin had eight points through four games before notching two points and going minus-2 while the Capitals were getting stonewalled in three straight games to finish off the series.

While Ovechkin had an early third period goal denied by Mike Knuble's goaltender interference call (entirely debatable, given what has been allowed in the postseason) and nearly tied the game with an end-to-end rush in the third period, for much of the game he was locked up and Game Seven wasn't the first time that happened to him in the series.

For Ovechkin and the rest of the Capitals, this playoff disappointment will make for a long summer.

On the other side, the Habs are all too happy to postpone their summer plans.

Jaroslav Halak returned from his mid-series break and put on a goaltending display for the ages, stopping 131 of 134 shots (.978 SVPCT) in Montreal's last three wins.  If Montreal is going to continue this improbable playoff run, Halak will have to continue this exceptional level of play.

One of the key performers for Montreal in the series had just one assist. 

Hal Gill wasn't particularly effective during the regular season, but he blocked 31 shots against the Capitals (4.43 per game, compared to the 2.21 per game he blocked during the regular season) and he was the only Canadiens player to play all seven games in Round One and still register a plus rating. 

His strong play, combined with the absence of Jaroslav Spacek, earned Gill 21:24 of playing time per game, after he averaged 18 minutes per game in the regular season.  Hal Gill: impact performer in the playoffs; who knew?

Gill averaged 1.58 blocks per game as part of the Penguins' run to the Stanley Cup last spring and now he gets a chance to face his former mates in the second round, as Montreal squares off with Pittsburgh, a team that has its own share of snipers that the Canadiens will have to try and shut down.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen





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