Montreal serves up epic exit
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Hunched over, head bowed, his stick resting across his knees, Alex Ovechkin skated alone down the ice, stung by yet another Game 7 loss by his Washington Capitals.
At the other end of the rink stood Montreal Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak, his arms raised in triumph, his teammates pounding him on the helmet, on the back, everywhere.
With Halak making 41 saves in his latest spectacular, acrobatic performance, and his teammates combining to block a whopping 41 shots, eighth-seeded Montreal held on to beat Washington 2-1 Wednesday night, stunning the Presidents' Trophy winners by reeling off three consecutive victories to take the first-round series.
"I'm in shock right now. I don't know what to say," Ovechkin said, his voice low, his eyes staring at the floor of the locker room. "It was great going up 3-1 in the series. But it's only one step. We didn't do it."
The NHL's two-time MVP has played in four career playoff series, and each went to a Game 7.
Ovechkin and the Capitals are 1-3 in those deciding contests.
The Canadiens are the ninth No. 8 team to knock off a No. 1 in 32 matchups since the NHL went to its current playoff format in 1994 -- and the first to come back from a 3-1 series deficit.
"Before the series started, no one gave us a chance to win, not even one game," said Halak, who stopped 131 of Washington's 134 shots in Games 5-7. "We proved (to) them they were wrong."
Montreal defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron scored a 4-on-3 goal in the last 30 seconds of the opening period after Norris Trophy finalist Mike Green was sent off for cross-checking. Dominic Moore made it 2-0 with 3½ minutes left, stealing the puck from Green before beating goalie Semyon Varlamov.
Brooks Laich cut Washington's deficit with 2:16 to go, and the Capitals then got one last power play a half-minute later, but couldn't connect. It was a fitting end to the series: Washington's league-leading power play -- which converted 25 percent of its chances in the regular season -- went 1 for 33 against Montreal.
Halak and Montreal now take on Sidney Crosby and the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins in the second round, with Game 1 at Pittsburgh on Friday.
"If that goalie can play the same way as he played the last three games," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said, "anything can happen."
The fourth-seeded Penguins were the only higher-seeded team to win a first-round series in the Eastern Conference. Yes, that's right: All three division champions in the East are done already -- Washington, New Jersey and Buffalo.
All in all, this series represents a monumental collapse by Washington, which earned a third straight Southeast Division title, compiled the league's best record for the first time, and led the NHL in goals.
This is also a club that preceded each home game against Montreal with a video display that included an image of the Stanley Cup and the words, "NOTHING ELSE MATTERS," while the Metallica song of that name blared.
"I thought we had a good chance to win the Stanley Cup this year," Boudreau said, "and I would have bet my house that they wouldn't have beaten us three games in a row and we would have only scored three goals in almost 140 shots."
Consider, too, that the Canadiens allowed more goals than they scored this season, finished with 33 fewer standings points than the Capitals, and qualified for the playoffs on the final weekend.
But Halak was on their side.
He was yanked during Game 3 in favor of Carey Price, who also started Game 4. But Martin went back to Halak for Game 5 -- a switch that worked out rather well. Halak made 37 saves in a 2-1 win in Game 5, 53 saves in a masterpiece of a 4-1 victory in Game 6, and then produced more of the same Wednesday.
All against a Capitals club that was held to one or zero goals only three times in its first 86 games this season, including the playoffs.
"We're all kind of speechless right now," Capitals forward Matt Bradley said. "We have no one to blame but ourselves."
There was a moment -- ever so fleeting -- where the Capitals and their red-clad, towel-waving fans thought they had tied the game at 1-1. Only 24 seconds into the third period, Ovechkin put the puck past Halak on a shot from the left circle, but the goal immediately was waved off by an official because Washington forward Mike Knuble was in the crease, backing into Halak.
"It's a pretty tough one to take," Boudreau said after watching replays. "I don't know how they could make the call."
Later in the third period, Montreal's Maxim Lapierre slammed into Varlamov in the crease, forcing the goalie and the puck into the net. There was no goal -- and, to Washington's frustration, no penalty, either.
Nothing, though, was as frustrating to Ovechkin & Co. as being unable to solve Halak over the final 180 minutes of a series the Capitals figured they should have won.
"I imagine it's tough for them. They had their eyes set on bigger things, I'm sure," said Montreal defenseman Hal Gill, credited with six of his club's blocked shots. "I think they thought we were kind of a bump in the road. That's hockey, that's playoffs. I think we played better as a team then they did."
NOTES: Washington's Alexander Semin, who scored 40 goals this season, wasted a great chance in the first period and finished the series without a goal. ... It's the second time Montreal won a series after trailing 3-1. ... The Capitals owned the best home record in the NHL during the regular season, but lost Games 1, 5 and 7 in Washington.