Caps' Leaders Emerge in the "Nick" of Time

By Scott Lowe

The Washington Capitals enjoyed the finest regular season by far in franchise history, and they did it with a high-flying, high-powered offense that easily was the highest-scoring in the NHL en route to capturing the Southeast Division, the Eastern Conference top seed and the Presidents’ Trophy. Because of that unprecedented regular-season success it’s possible to see how the Caps might enter the postseason with a “my way or the highway” mentality and the confidence that if they just maintained the status quo everything would be fine.

It’s possible to see how that mentality could creep into the locker room, but in this case it’s not entirely understandable. Not with the core of a team returning for a third try at Lord Stanley’s prize – a group that learned first hand the past two seasons the style of play necessary to have success in April and May.

Fortunately for Washington, this year it only took 5-1/2 periods for the Caps to realize they needed to adapt their approach in the NHL Eastern Conference Quarterfinals vs. Montreal. They came to the realization in the “Nick” of time, using Nick Backstrom’s first career hat trick to rally from a 4-1 late second-period deficit and escape with a thrilling, yet improbable 6-5 overtime win in Game 2 to even the series at two.

Last season it took the Capitals six periods and a two-games-to-none deficit, which included a goaltender change, to the New York Rangers before the light bulb turned on. Under eerily similar circumstances the Caps fell behind the Habs 2-0 in Game 2 Saturday on Montreal’s first two shots – despite having seven shots on goal of their own – resulting in goaltender Jose Theodore being yanked by coach Bruce Boudreau in favor of Semyon Varlamov for the second consecutive season. While Boudreau didn’t blame Theodore for the goals, the fact that he had given up goals on three straight shots going back to Tomas Plekanec’s overtime game-winner in Game 1 simply could not be overlooked.

So now we can add a D.C. goaltender controversy to the drama that has already enveloped this series. “We’ll have a video session and a long plane ride to Montreal, and during the course of that one of (the goalies) will know (who’s playing),” Boudreau said. “Before this series we said that if we are going to go anywhere this year we probably will have to use both goalies. I still think that we’ll have to use both goalies. Whether Varly or Theo plays Monday, I think they both are going to play again. That’s why we’ve got to keep them sharp.”

That’s just one of the many storylines that has emerged in this series, which has been more closely contested than most had expected and has produced two exhilarating games. The main theme has been the vaunted Washington offense against the Montreal trap and kamikaze shot-blocking defense. For more than 100 minutes that battle had clearly been won by the Habs, allowing them to capture Game 1, 3-2, and build a seemingly insurmountable 4-1 lead that had let the air out of Verizon Center in Game 2.

But then the Caps’ vaunted first line, led by hard-charging Alex Ovechkin, bull-in-a-china-shop Mike Knuble and Backstrom, hockey’s version of a jedeye, decided it was time to lead by example and show the others what needed to be done.

Ovechkin seemed determined to make a statement right from the opening faceoff, steamrolling Marc-Andre Bergeron and Andrei Markov on the first shift to ignite the crowd. The excitement soon turned to gloom, however, as Montreal connected for its first score at the end of that shift and then another just minutes later – the first of three straight by Andrei Kostitsyn

“I felt pretty good today, especially in the first period, and wanted to get into the game,” Ovechkin said. “I wanted to go out and make some hits and take some shots.” Asked about his strategy, he replied, “To destroy people? No. My job is to score goals, and if I get a chance to hit somebody, I’m going to hit him. It was good for me mentally.”

A breakaway goal by Eric Fehr after a turnover and fine feed by Tomas Fleishmann pulled the Caps to within 2-1 before the game was 10 minutes old, but from that point on the contest settled into a familiar pattern, with Washington pressing and forcing passes and shots and Montreal sitting back, clogging the passing and shooting lanes and converging on the net en masse every time the Caps had a real opportunity to score on goaltender Jaroslav Halak. That continued until Kostitsyn scored once on a botched defensive coverage in front and again when a puck that bounced off of him for the natural hat trick and a 4-1 lead late in the second.

That’s when Ovechkin, Backstrom and Knuble decided it was time to take charge. Just moments after Kostitsyn’s third tally, Knuble, the unsung hero of the night, jammed the net, the first time all series a Washington player had gotten into Halak’s face, and distracted the Montreal goaltender enough to allow Backstrom’s bad-angle slapper to sneak through.

4-2. Crowd ignited. Message sent. The third period would be different.

No one ever expected the Caps to give up, but many at Verizon Center had begun to question whether Washington was willing to do what it would take to defeat this pesky and stubborn Canadiens’ club. That question would be answered in the final 20 minutes.

Ovechkin, who had taken the blame for a sub-par Game 1 effort stepped up and took center stage, crashing the net to score on a rebound that barely came loose after Canada-killer John Carlson had deftly faked a Montreal player to the ice and fired a shot at Halak. Then, a few minutes later, with 16:30 left in the contest, Ovechkin took exception with Brian Gionta after a rush on Varlamov, giving the Habs’ forward a couple extra shoves after the whistle. Scott Gomez came to Gionta’s aid, which drew Tom Poti into the mix. In the drop of a hat – or a pair of gloves – two of the sport’s mildest-mannered Americans, Poti and Gomez, were throwing punches.

The fight was action-packed if not awkward, but it really got the crowd in an uproar, and when a camera panned the Caps’ bench, there were smiles all around. It was the first time all series the team had looked relaxed. “I thought it was great,” Boudreau said. “It was the first time I’d seen Tom fight, and the players really rallied around it. They patted Tom on the back. We don’t have a lot of fights, anyway, but it told us something about how much he wanted to win. I thought that after that – even though our power play was struggling – it gave us more life.”

Knuble reared his menacing body again shortly, coming too close to comfort for Halak as yet another Ovechkin shot was nearly blocked. This time, though, the Caps’ captain didn’t give up on the play, pouncing on the rebound and threading a perfect pass to Backstrom for the dunk and a 4-4 tie with slightly more than 10 minutes left in regulation.

It looked as though Washington had all the momentum, but a bad decision by Jeff Schultz and some nifty Montreal passing – aided by poor defensive coverage by Mike Green – resulted in what appeared to be a deciding fifth goal for the Habs with 5:06 left. It wasn’t over, though, as Carlson continued his clutch play against teams representing the Great White North, burying a wrister off of a Backstrom feed with 1:21 remaining for his first career playoff goal.

Then, in overtime, three momentum changers teamed up, with Poti and Knuble feeding Backstrom for the game-winner, a snapshot that was very similar to the one that chased Theodore in the first period. Backstrom’s strike sent the Verizon Center into pandemonium as hats rained down from even the “cheap” seats. It was the second consecutive playoff Game 2 in D.C. that resulted in two players recording hat tricks – just to add another twist to the night’s festivities.

Backstrom and Carlson were the heroes for sure, but Ovechkin, whose health and level of play had been questioned by so many, proved to be the leader his teammates had grown to lean on: “You could see his energy, his desire and his leadership were there tonight,” Boudreau said. “If we all watched the last game and today’s game, the difference was night and day. We need him to be like that all the time if we are going to succeed.”

Added Backstrom: “He’s such a big key to our team. He plays with a lot of emotion and a physical game that gives the team a lot of energy. When we see him go to the net and score goals and hit guys like that it gives the other guys on the team good energy and the other guys want to do it, too.”

Ovechkin and Knuble went to the net often during the Caps’ comeback, showing their teammates first hand what needed to be done to get under Halak’s skin and help Washington claw its way back into the series. The results were undeniable and helped the Caps dampen what should have been a very successful trip to D.C. for the Habs.

“We watched the video and Bruce told us that Halak leaves rebounds,” Ovechkin said. “We just had to go to the net and find some rebounds. We had to do something. I like to shoot the puck and they were playing so tight on me that I couldn’t find the time and space to shoot, so I decided to go to the net and find some rebounds. Today it worked for me. Tomorrow is a new game and a new day.”

No one knows what tomorrow will hold in this roller-coaster series, but one thing is certain. Washington’s leaders stepped to the forefront just in the “Nick” of time.