Penalty kill, unknown rookie help Canadiens extend Caps to Game 7
Montreal's penalty kill has allowed just one goal in 30 chances in the series
Rookie PK Subban was called up the morning of the game and performed well
Hal Gill, Josh Gorges and Tomas Plekanec did not allow a shot during a 5-on-3
MONTREAL -- Call this the Miracle of PK.
P.K. stands for Pernell Karl, the given names of a rookie defenseman named Subban who was summoned from the minors to play for the Canadiens in Game 6, an elimination match.
And P.K. (as you surely already know) stands for penalty kill, an area in which Montreal has excelled against the NHL's best power play. The Washington Capitals' percentage in the series is so low -- 3.3, one-for-30 -- it resembles the prime rate.
Anyway, a brilliant Jaroslav Halak made 53 saves in a Patrick Roy-ian performance and Mike Cammalleri scored two goals, but the upstart Canadiens know this 4-1 win has the initials P.K. carved into it.
While genuflecting towards Halak, now 9-0-1 in games this season in which he has faced 40 or more shots, this sweet story starts with a defenseman who arrived Monday morning after helping the Hamilton Bulldogs eliminate the Manitoba Moose in the first round of the AHL playoffs the previous night. (When Subban assisted on Cammalleri's second goal midway through the first period, it was his 10th point of the playoffs. Alas for Montreal, the other nine were as a Bulldog, but we're getting a little ahead of ourselves.) He played major minutes in the minor-league win, but fatigue is a relatively foreign concept to a man two weeks shy of his 21st birthday. He looked daisy-fresh, from a hit on Matt Bradley on his first shift to his three shifts in the third. Indeed, while awaiting a change to take that first shift, Subban straddled the boards for perhaps 10 seconds. He looked like a kid about to be given the green light to go downstairs and unwrap his presents Christmas morning.
Subban actually had been called up for two games in February, playing a tad over 40 minutes and compiling two assists while demonstrating what is known in Montreal as sang-froid. He is a high-risk defenseman, who at some point is going to give both teams an excellent chance to score. Given he was plus-46 in the minors this year, he generally was providing a bigger boost to the Bulldogs. The Canadiens had an opportunity to call him up for Game 5 in the absence of Jaroslav Spacek, out with an unspecified illness, but chose to have him finish the AHL series. Letting Subban ride in like the cavalry for an elimination game was genuinely surprising for an organization so staunchly conservative that its idea of radical is sampling an After Eight dinner mint at seven-thirty.
The inherent danger was the swashbuckling Subban would unbuckle his swashes on the big stage. But playing with Roman Hamrlik and taking some time on the right point on the second power-play unit, he behaved admirably. There was one shift midway through the second period when he found himself in front of Capitals goaltender Semyon Varlamov in a wild child moment that must have scared Montreal coach Jacques Martin stiff -- or in Martin's case, stiffer -- but Mike Green's 50-footer was snuffed by Halak as Subban sort of got back into the play, jostling with a Capitals player by the side of the net.
Subban's line on the scoresheet would read: 14 shifts, 10:02 of ice time, 6:57 at even strength, one blocked shot, two hits, one assist, a plus one. These were not exactly world-beating numbers, but Subban made a contribution to the Canadiens and to the festive mood of the 21,273 who chanted his name, or, more properly, his initials.
The lines in the Canadiens dressing room after Montreal's first home playoff win since 2008 were even better.
"I didn't expect to get called up," Subban said. "Last night (Bulldogs assistant coach) Marty Raymond told me to make sure I see coach (Guy Boucher) before I leave. I said, 'Am I in trouble?' He said, 'No.' (Boucher) told me I was getting called up, and to keep my game simple."
Ever been to Washington?
"No," said Subban, who is black. "Maybe (Barack) Obama will show up."
The other PK was less dramatic than the insertion of the thrilling Subban into the series, but more telling. Indeed, the Canadiens' penalty killers -- especially the defense pair of Hall Gill and Josh Gorges -- might have played the best 75 seconds of defensive hockey anywhere in the past two years during a first-period five-on-three Capitals power play that didn't register a shot.
The Capitals scored on a tick more than every four chances during the regular season, hardly surprising given the personnel. They are basically the Four Horsemen of the Power Play Apocalypse (plus Brooks Laich). Any time you can throw out a unit that includes the nonpareil Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Green, you are onto something. But against a resolute three-man kill of Tomas Plekanec, Gorges and especially Gill, the Capitals were stymied. The three packed it in around Halak, blocking passing lanes and, when they did occur, shots. The Montreal triangle might as well have been the Bermuda Triangle as far Washington was concerned.
"They're a bunch of (right-handed shots), so they're going to work off the one side," Gorges said. "You know they're looking to tee up Ovechkin. I think we did a great job of forcing them to the outside, making them pass the puck to areas they didn't want to shoot from. It was good because we were all on the same page. We moved in sync. I think we were maybe a half step ahead of them, meaning that we were directing where they had to shoot from. That's all you can ask on a five-on-three PK, to put them in a tougher position."
Gill is the fulcrum of the kill. He is 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds, able to gobble up pucks and space. He is not much of a skater and a mediocre passer. He does not possess a laser from the point. He is not overtly physical. Sometimes watching him handle the puck is like seeing a terrier play with a chew toy. But he is living proof of Woody Allen's maxim that 90 percent of life is showing up. Gill shows up. Back in the pre-lockout rodeo days when he could truly wrap up a forward -- Jaromir Jagr always called him the most difficult defenseman to play against -- Gill thrived with his limited toolbox. But he is clever enough to have adapted to the new NHL game by specializing in getting in the way. He cleared several pucks in Game 6 for Halak who, despite sizzling glove saves, left some rebounds lying around. Said Gill, "Sometimes I felt like a Zamboni out there."
Halak, of course, was the other great penalty killer. In the second period when the Capitals finally seemed to have found some rhythm with the man advantage, Halak made a video-at-10 glove save on Joe Corvo that left the Capitals defenseman shaking his head. The goalie followed it about a minute later with a strong push to his right to stop Semin from the right faceoff circle. Washington coach Bruce Boudreau would say after the game that he thought his forwards might have been trying to be too fine, which is a sign that Halak had seeped into their brains. Tomas Fleischmann had a glorious chance on the prime-rate power play midway through the third period but, with maybe two-thirds of the net available, he fired the puck into Halak's body from five feet.
The Capitals have one final chance to get this right Wednesday in Game 7 in the nation's capital.
Unless they can solve Montreal's P.K., the penalty kill more than the defenseman, the operative initials for the NHL's most dynamic team will be R.I.P.
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