The tag line for the NHL’s playoff promos this spring is “History will be made.”
Right now, the Montreal Canadiens will be happy to repeat it. And they just might after forcing a Game 7 against Washington with an impressive 4-1 win over the Caps.
Montreal has won more Stanley Cups than anyone, yet in their long and storied past, the Canadiens have managed to rebound from a 3-1 series deficit only once. That was back in 2004 when they sent higher-seeded Boston packing after the first round, a feat that could plausibly be duplicated against the Eastern Conference champion Capitals.
And if it does, you’ll have to look no further than Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak to understand why. The 24-year-old Slovak who started this season as the team’s backup has turned this series around with back-to-back superb performances, the latest one bordering on the remarkable.
“Sometimes goalies get in a zone where nothing is going to beat them, he was in that zone,” Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said. “He was just out of his mind.”
Boudreau may have actually been understating things. Halak was that good, early in the game, late and at all points in between frustrating the Capitals in what was arguably their best outing of this series. And he had to be because Washington did a lot of things it wanted on the attack. The Capitals matched the Canadiens great speed by moving the puck well through the neutral zone and they spent a lot of time in Montreal’s zone while creating traffic in front of the net.
All in all it was a nice bounce back from a tepid effort at home two nights earlier, a high-energy effort that saw Washington fire 54 shots. But for all the pressure the NHL’s best offense was able to put on Halak, the Caps couldn’t find the back of the net until it didn’t really matter.
Montreal actually set the tone early despite the lopsided numbers on the shot clock, in large part thanks to the work from their energy third and fourth lines, which forechecked aggressively and kept pounding the Washington defensemen deep in their own end. The effort contained the Caps to a certain extent, and Montreal’s shutdown defensemen Hal Gill and Josh Georges did some fine work whenever big guns Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were on the ice. But keeping Washington in check indefinitely is next to impossible and the Canadiens didn’t.
The Capitals had plenty of chances, one of the best coming in the opening minutes when Halak robbed Alexander Semin from in close and gave the visitors an idea of what was in store. Halak made several other big stops before the period was over, a couple when Washington had 74 seconds with a two-man advantage.
Problem is Washington’s power play, the league’s best during the regular season, has been the bane of its existence during this series, and came up short in that pivotal situation. By that time though, the Canadiens had taken the lead on a pair of Mike Cammalleri goals within two minutes. And on this night, that was enough for Halak.
“Jaro stood on his head tonight,” Cammalleri said.
Actually he did more than that. Halak flopped. He dived. He kicked out his legs. He flashed his glove. He put up the kind of wall in goal that had to make the Caps think they were shooting at a Sumo wrestler. And he sent this series back to Washington with the Capitals wondering what, if anything they can do to beat him.
“We have no choice have to wipe the slate clean,” Boudreau said. “If you start thinking and let him get inside your head, then you’re in trouble.”
Truth is Washington is already in trouble as it heads to its fourth seventh game in as many playoff series over the last three years. The Capitals have won one of those, but after running away from the pack during the regular season and coming into this series as heavy favorites, they’ll be facing the kind of pressure they didn’t before.
And they’ll have to prove they have the character to match their talent. After their last two efforts, you have to wonder if they do.