Habs - Caps Episode 3: A New Series

After an interesting set of games at the Verizon Center in Washington, the Capitals and Canadiens will move things above the border to the Bell Centre for games three and four of their first round series.

The Canadiens surprised pretty much everyone in the hockey world by taking game 1 last Thursday night, a 3-2 win overtime. They weren't so lucky two nights later, losing game 2 by a score of 6-5, once again in overtime, although the thirty seconds the extra frame lasted could barely be classified as ''overtime''.

Nonetheless, going into tonight's game 3 at the Bell Centre, we can certainly classify the games to come as a ''new series''. Splitting games 1 and 2 in Washington means that home-ice advantage is shifted to Montreal. No matter how long the series goes, the two teams will play more games in Montreal than they will in Washington, and for Jacques Martin and the Canadiens, that has to be considered a success, when looking back at the first two games of the series.

Despite winning game 1, should the Montreal Canadiens and their fans be frustrated or disappointed after Saturday's 6-5 overtime loss in game 2?

Simply put, no one would blame them. Despite the motivation and momentum gained from winning game 1, they simply couldn't put it in the bag, and that has to be frustrating for even the most consummate professionals.

A 4-1 lead they held late in the 2nd period was met with an incredible, but what should have been expected comeback from the Capitals' first line, led by Nick Backstrom and, of course, Alex Ovechkin. Even a goal from Tomas Plekanec with 5 minutes to go in the game was not enough to put the Caps away, as young John Carlson, already proving to be a clutch performer on the blue line in his young career, got the game-tying goal with less than a minute and a half to go in the game. You guessed it - Nick Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin assisted on the goal.

Backstrom put the Canadiens away from good with a quick goal only thirty seconds into the first overtime frame.

The Canadiens, once again, pushed the Caps to the brink. They proved they can score on their non-Miller or Brodeur goalies (sorry), and prove that they CAN contain Alex Ovechkin, despite the fact that he eventually broke out.

Yes, Habs fans should be feeling frustration on this Monday morning. But they shouldn't be disappointed. Going into games 3 and 4 at the Bell Centre, you'd have to think that they accomplished what they set out to do in splitting the games in Washington and frustrating a lot of the Capitals players. The Caps are one of the best teams in the league, and nothing is going to change that. They're going to be tough to play on any ice surface, and no lead against them will be safe.

But they've shown the chinks in their armor, and they are beatable. And going into tonight's game, you can bet that there are more positives to take out of the first two games than negatives.

The Canadiens are tied with the Caps for the most goals scored in the playoffs thus far. They are also tied for second in powerplay percentage, and first in the penalty kill, completely shutting down the Capitals with the man-advantage. While they have allowed the second-most shots in the playoffs behind the Colorado Avalanche, they have responded with a more than respectable 31 shots per game against their opposition. Finally, they are second behind the Avs in blocked shots, a key stat in this series.

While they definitely need improvement in the faceoff circle (they are by far the worst team out of sixteen), and they also share the worst hit stats with the LA Kings, the statistics have definitely been positive for the Canadiens, and home ice advantage will only help them in tonight's game.

No matter how you look at it, the stats will favor the Capitals going into tonight's game, based on their regular season track record, and, frankly, the Canadiens' mediocrity. We all know that they're the better team, and they will be a handful, whether they're at home or on the road. And with the monster in Alex Ovechkin finally awoken, the odds will, once again, be in the Capitals' favor.

But if games 1 and 2 in Washington were any indication, the Canadiens will compete, and will make it just as difficult on the Caps as the Caps have made it on them. As a fan and an observer, I am more than confident that they can come out of this two-game mini-series at the Bell Centre with another split.

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OVECHKIN TRIES TO STIR THE POT - GOALTENDING DECISIONS

With Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom finally returning to regular-season form, after a brief, but well documented slumber in Thursday's game, Jaroslav Halak could no longer hold the fort and withstand the barrage of shots that kept pouring in from the Capitals.

Giving up 6 goals in 37 shots, Halak's spot as the Canadiens' goaltender was quick to be questioned by the TSN Staff. Despite their best attempts to create a goaltending controversy, I would put a lot of money on Halak to start for the Canadiens tonight. Jacques Martin has shown that he is will to give as much of his confidence as is possible to Halak, and Halak has earned the right to bounce back from Saturday's game. Besides, he really wasn't that bad, making key saves that kept the Canadiens in the game the entire night.

Nonetheless, if Halak gives up a softie or two early in tonight's game, expect the leash to shorten and expect Carey Price to make an appearance.

Regardless of what should be obvious to most, Alex Ovechkin made his best attempt to stir the pot a-la Tomas Plekanec after game 2, implying that Jaroslav Halak was ''nervous'' after each of the six goals the Capitals scored on him, saying that his hand was shaking.

It's Ovechkin's feeble attempt to counter what Tomas Plekanec said said before the series, and frankly, it's quite laughable. It was simply one of those games, and after taking 84 shots in only two games, Halak doesn't have much more proving to do, nor explaining if he finally lets in a goal that maybe should have been a save. Yes, his stats aren't as good as they could be, but he's held his own and given the Canadiens a chance to win.

In fact, Halak has been announced as the Canadiens' starter as of this writing, and TSN has had to change the graphic on their main page.

Instead of making silly accusations, Ovechkin should maybe look at his own team and his own goaltenders before making potshots. If there is any goaltending controversy in this series, it's on the Capitals bench.

Jose Theodore was the starter going into the series and was given full confidence from his coach before game 1, and even before game 2, despite Thursday's loss, in which Theo looked good, not great. Unfortunately for José, he didn't last 20 minutes between pipes for the Capitals on Saturday night, giving up 2 goals in two shots. Bruce Boudreau quickly found himself reducing Theo's leash to nothing, and replacing him with Semyon Varlamov. Boudreau quickly changed his tune on Sunday, from the early confidence given to Theodore before the series:

"I think we said before this series started that if we were to go anywhere in this we would probably have to use both goalies. I'm sure we're still going to use both goalies, whether [Varlamov] plays Monday or [Theodore] plays Monday, I think they're both going to play again."

Whatever you say, Bruce.

Going into tonight's game, the question remains: Does Theodore get another chance, in his former arena and home, or will Boudreau cut his losses and go with what's seemingly the better choice.

Boudreau's decision to pull Theodore certainly wasn't a bad one, he gave up two bad goals and the Caps needed a game changer - something that Varlamov provided. But Habs fans can't help but smirk, seeing a frustrated Theodore eat his words while sitting on the bench, and, of course, reading Boudreau's 180 in the media the next day.

Tonight's goaltending decision for the Capitals could very well be one of the deciding factors in this series.

EDIT: The Caps have announced Varlamov as their starter. Subsequently, Habs fans will have a harder time mocking the goaltender during tonight's game.

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METROPOLIT TO PLAY

Finally, on a positive note, Glen Metropolit has been ''cleared'' to play in tonight's game at the Bell Centre. He will provide a much needed boost for the Canadiens' bottom two lines, which have been a none-factor in the first two games of the series.

The return is a bit unusual, as Metropolit, who suffered a shoulder injury on March 27th, was originally diagnosed to an 8-week absence from Montreal's line-up. He skated before the series with the Canadiens, wearing a no-contact jersey.

You have to think that Metropolit is not 100%, but the Canadiens will take whatever they can get, especially in the faceoff circle.

Expect Metropolit to take many draws and get powerplay time if the Habs's snipers can't continue the trends they set in the first two games.

Sergei Kostitsyn, who was the subject of Jacques Martin's anger in game 2, will sit this one out.

More to come throughout the day, including updated links in our Head-to-head series thread for the Caps and Habs. For now, read Scott Lowe's Game 3 Preview and make fun of him for being a Caps fan.

Enjoy the game, it should be a dandy with a rocking Bell Centre crowd!

Prax
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