Capitals not playing like top seed
Washington wasted its home-ice advantage in a 3-2 overtime loss to Montreal
You can't blame Cap goalie Jose Theodore, who used to play for the Habs
Alex Ovechkin's vaunted determination was missing throughout the game
For their superlative efforts through the 82-game regular season, the Washington Capitals earned home-ice advantage for their opening round series against the Montreal Canadiens.
It only took them one game to throw it away.
The Caps looked full value for their Presidents' Trophy win in the first, then faded down the stretch before losing to the Canadiens 3-2 at Verizon Center Thursday night.
It was fitting that Tomas Plekanec fired the 40-foot slapper that sailed past the blocker of Jose Theodore at 13:19 of overtime. Earlier this week, the Canadiens forward ignited controversy in Washington with his suggestion that the Caps lacked "a dominant goaltender."
Netminding certainly wasn't the team's problem on the night. If Theodore felt any pressure facing his former team or trying to avenge last spring's benching, he didn't show it.
He was sensational from the midway point on as Montreal rebounded from that slow start and used their speed to dictate the pace of the game and create several high-grade scoring chances. This was Theodore at his best. He was aggressive to the shooter, kept his rebounds under control and looked big in the net.
He was blameless on Mike Cammalleri's power-play marker at 12:36 of the first and had no chance on Scott Gomez's equalizer at 7:34 of the third. Pin that one on Mike Green, who allowed Gomez a free pass to the net before tapping a beautiful Brian Gionta pass into the empty side.
The winner falls on the wilting defense as well. Shaone Morrisson failed to tie up Plekanec when he picked up a loose puck at the point, then Joe Corvo inexplicably backed in instead of attacking, allowing the Canadiens' sniper both time and space to pick his shot. "You can't fault Jose," forward Mike Knuble said afterward. "We didn't execute. We need to play better and harder all the way around."
No kidding. Meanwhile, Jaroslav Halak was spectacular at the other end of the ice, making 45 saves and keeping the Habs alive through a first period in which the Caps tied a franchise record with 19 shots on goal.
"The first period, we could have been in trouble, but he kept us in the game and gave us a chance to get our momentum," said Montreal coach Jacques Martin.
Not to take anything away from the Canadiens, but even they had to be surprised by their resilience. They'd gone 3-4-4 over their final 11 games and backed into this series on the strength of a point gained in an overtime loss to Toronto in their season finale. They certainly looked the part of the pretender early on as the Caps established a forecheck and kept them pinned in their own zone for much of the first. The home side looked hungry and focused as they won most of the battles for loose pucks. But instead of being worn down from chasing the Caps for 30 minutes, the Habs found their legs midway through the second and took control of the game. The play of Halak certainly provided a boost, as did winning the special teams battle. The Habs scored once in three chances while holding the Caps scoreless on their four opportunities. A big part of that success came as a result of the defense-by-committee approach that held Alexander Ovechkin without a shot. It was just the second time this season that the regular-season leader failed to land a bid.
While giving credit to the Habs, Washington coach Brude Boudreau was unimpressed with Ovechkin's effort.
"He didn't play good," he said. "[Montreal's defense] gapped up real well on him, but I didn't think Alex played well at all."
Ovechkin certainly wasn't alone in his failings. Alexander Semin slept through much of the game. Green looked only slightly better than the Keystone Cap who bumbled through last spring's aborted run, especially on a delay of game penalty he took in the final minute of regulation for clearing a puck over the glass.
But when the game's most colorful player fades into the wallpaper, he's going to feel the heat. He skated with speed, but without the dynamic determination that makes him so dominant. It was the sort of limp performance that's sure to start whispers of a nagging injury, but don't buy into those. Boudreau will offer an honest assessment of a soft effort, but he'll also defend a player who deserves it.
For this one, Ovechkin deserved the heat.
While there weren't many in red who can hold their heads up, the Caps got a great game from Nicklas Backstrom. He competed hard all night made and made consistently solid decisions with the puck, particularly on his early third period goal that gave Washington a 2-1 lead. Center Eric Belanger also stood out as the Caps destroyed the Canadiens in the face-off circle.
Those are elements to build on when the series resumes Saturday. But they're going to need more commitment to team defense -- where have we heard that before? -- and they need to cut down on the stupid penalties that allow the Habs to exercise their one true advantage in the series. Start there, and they've got a good chance of turning this thing around in a hurry.
Because, after all, it was only one game. No need for panic just yet ... but there sure is reason for concern. If they don't correct their course, the Caps could earn a lot more time at home than they'd like.
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