NHL

Canadiens to face Penguins after stunning Capitals in Game 7

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The Canadian Press
4/29/2010 12:58:40 AM
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WASHINGTON - Jaroslav Halak has been proving doubters wrong his whole life.

He's still doing it, and the Montreal Canadiens are more than happy to come along for the ride.

Marc-Andre Bergeron and Dominic Moore scored for Montreal and Halak made 41 saves as the Canadiens shocked the Washington Capitals 2-1 in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference quarter-final series Wednesday.

The Canadiens became the first No. 8 seed to erase a 3-1 series deficit to knock off a top seed since the NHL switched to the current playoff format in 1994.

"Even before the series started no one gave us a chance to win even one game," said Halak, who stopped 131 of 134 shots over the final three games for an astounding .978 save percentage. "We proved them wrong, and we showed a lot of character after being down 3-1 and coming back like that. It's been a great series, but now we have a second round ahead of us and we have to be ready."

Halak was chosen 271st overall -- 25th among goaltenders -- in the 2003 NHL entry draft, but since then he has worked his way up from the East Coast Hockey League, through the American Hockey League and up the Canadiens depth chart.

As much as people doubted the Canadiens entering the playoffs, far more people doubted that the soft-spoken goalie of slight stature from Bratislava, Slovakia could ever ascend to these heights.

"I thought the way he played these last three games, it was like he wasn't going to lose no matter what happens," said Canadiens winger Michael Cammalleri. "It felt like we could start shooting on our own net and he would stop them."

Halak was indeed spectacular, but he had a ton of help in Game 7 as his Canadiens teammates matched his save total by blocking 41 Capitals shots.

"You try to do whatever you can to get in front of a shot and take the pressure off (Halak), because he had a lot of pressure on him," said Habs defenceman Hal Gill, who blocked 31 shots in the series, including a game-high six in Game 7.

Brooks Laich scored with 2:16 left in the third to bring the Capitals to within a goal, but they couldn't convert on a power play over the final 1:44 of regulation to tie it up.

The league's best power play in the regular season went 1-for-33 in the series, one of several reasons why the Capitals' off-season has started so early.

"We were number one overall in the regular season and we can't even score a goal on the power play against Montreal," Capitals centre Nicklas Backstrom said. "That's really bad."

The Capitals had a dominant regular season in winning the President's Trophy with 121 points -- 33 more than the Canadiens -- and leading the league with 318 goals scored. When Washington went ahead 3-1 in the series it appeared as though the cakewalk most experts had predicted would come to pass.

But it didn't.

"I thought we had a good chance to win the Stanley Cup this year," said Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, who has lost three of the four playoff series he's coached -- all in seven games.

"I would have bet my house that they wouldn't have beaten us three games in a row, and that we would have scored only three goals on almost 140 shots."

Halak's Washington counterpart Semyon Varlamov wasn't nearly as busy in Game 7, but allowed two goals on 16 shots to lose his third straight game.

For the Capitals and the NHL's most exciting player Alexander Ovechkin, it was yet another playoff disappointment after bowing out in seven games to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in round two last year.

"I think we all know we have a pretty good team," Ovechkin said. "But we didn't win when we had to win, so I don't know."

Those Penguins will be waiting for the Canadiens in Pittsburgh to start their conference quarter-final series Friday night at Mellon Arena.

"We don't make it easy on ourselves," Gill said of the Canadiens drawing the NHL's two biggest stars in Ovechkin and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby. "It's going to be a tough challenge."

The game wasn't without controversy as Ovechkin appeared to tie the game 1-1 at the 24-second mark of the third period, but it was instantly waved off by referee Brad Watson because he deemed that Mike Knuble interfered with Halak.

Ovechkin blew it off after the game, saying he had no desire to look at the replay because the team lost. But Boudreau looked at the replay "four or five times" after the game and still had trouble figuring out how the goal was disallowed.

"It feels like you're whining if you say things negative, but it's a pretty tough one to take," Boudreau said. "If Knuble's right foot touched his pad, it looked like it didn't but if it did, it was so light that I don't know how they can make the call."

Washington kept coming throughout the third, outshooting Montreal 18-5 over the final 20 minutes, but the Canadiens made it 2-0 when Moore beat Varlamov with a shot to the far side at 16:24 on the Canadiens 16th and final shot of the game.

As many in the sellout Verizon Center crowd of 18,377 began heading towards the exits, Laich brought Washington to within a goal just over a minute later, converting a rebound while falling in the crease at 17:44.

Montreal's Ryan O'Byrne was called for high-sticking at 18:16, but the Capitals couldn't tie it despite pulling Varlamov for a 6-on-4 advantage.

The game began somewhat tentatively as both clubs tried to avoid an early mistake.

It was the Capitals that got the bulk of the chances, but the Canadiens came out of it with a 1-0 lead after one.

Halak didn't need to be spectacular to keep Washington off the board through 20 minutes, but he made some difficult stops and benefited from a little luck when Alexander Semin tipped an easy goal off the post about 12 minutes in.

Moments after Halak made a pair of big stops on Laich and Semin from in tight, Green was on a rush into the Montreal zone when the puck slid off his stick. His response was to cross-check Andrei Markov, taking an offensive zone penalty and sending the Canadiens to the power play.

"It was well deserved," Boudreau said of the penalty. "He deserved it. It wasn't a smart play by Mike."

Montreal didn't take long to convert, as Scott Gomez showed great patience before threading a pass through to Bergeron, whose one-timer from the top of the circle rifled past Varlamov at 19:30.

Montreal had a great chance to double the lead right at the start of the second when Brian Gionta was left alone in front and beat Varlamov, but his shot found the far post.

It was all Capitals from there in the second as they outshot Montreal 13-3, but still couldn't solve Halak. He made a nice stop on an Ovechkin wrister from the circle and Green's attempt on the rebound during a power play, and later stopped Belanger from point blank.

It was a recurring theme over the last three games as Halak was near-perfect against the league's highest scoring team. Now it remains to be seen if he can keep it up against the defending champs in Round 2.

"If that goalie can play the way he played the last three games," Boudreau said, "anything can happen."

Notes: The Capitals lost 14 times in 45 games at Verizon Center this season in either regulation or overtime. Four of those losses came at the hands of the Canadiens. ... Canadiens defenceman Jaroslav Spacek took the morning skate with his teammates for the first time since being felled by a virus prior to Game 4, but he did not dress for the game. ... The Canadiens scratched wingers Sergei Kostitsyn and Ben Maxwell. ... Tomas Fleischmann was a healthy scratch for the Capitals for the first time in the series. With 23 goals and 51 points in the regular season, Fleischmann has one assist in six games. Scott Walker made his 2010 playoff debut in Fleischmann's spot. ... The Capitals dressed veteran centre Brendan Morrison and played him between Laich and Semin. Morrison was scratched in Game 6. ... David Steckel, John Erskine, Tyler Sloan and Quentin Laing were also scratched for the Capitals.



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