All Over for Ovechkin, Caps

Amazing stuff in Washington as the Canadiens led by Jaroslav Halak pull off the unthinkable- holding on for dear life in a hard fought 2-1 win in Game Seven stunning Verizon Center. Halak makes 41 saves including 18 in a wild third that saw two goals wiped out correctly. In the final three games, he stopped 131 of 134 shots, permitting a goal in each Hab win as they rallied from 3-1 down upsetting the heavily favored President’s Trophy winners.

It probably amounts to the greatest upset since the Sharks stunned Detroit in 1994. There’s only so much that can be said about Halak, who was the one reason I felt Montreal had a chance. Even if remote. I also liked the Habs countering speed and that proved crucial. But who ever would’ve predicted how well their D played, blocking shot after shot, flustering Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and invisible duo Alex Semin and Mike Green? Amazingly, Les Habitants blocked 41 shots. By comparison, the much more attacking Capitals had only 11. Well, they did outshoot their grittier opponent 42-16.

Somewhat fitting was that with Marc-Andre Bergeron’s first period four-on-three PPG holding up, the Habs got huge insurance when one-time Ranger Dominic Moore abused Green before beating Semyon Varlamov for the nail in the coffin with 3:36 left. Good thing because a diving Brooks Laich banged home a rebound slicing it to 2-1 with 2:26 left. Both Ovechkin and Semin assisted to make the final portion of this memorable series a classic finish.

A Ryan O’Byrne hi-stick gave the Caps their third power play. With 1:44 remaining, Bruce Boudreau pulled Varlamov for a six-on-four. It didn’t matter. Halak wasn’t going to allow another puck to beat him, getting just enough of a dangerous Ovechkin chance to push it wide. The Caps, whose power play was such a strength during the regular season, couldn’t get it together to save their fans from ultimate embarrassment. A Habs clear wide of the net along with hustle wound time down. A desperate Ovie tried to get the puck in for one last shot but failed, with the buzzer sounding as the Habs mobbed Halak jumping up and down. Remarkable scene.

Even more so, after sports best tradition in which Andrei Markov had some words of encouragement for an emotional Ovechin, the electrifying Russian superstar still saluted the crowd with his stick- showing a ton of class. That had to hurt. Bottom line. They ran into a hot goalie and a team that did the little things well enough to pull it off. There will be a lot of soul searching in D.C. For as much focus as there’s been on the Devils’ craziness on and off the ice, just imagine what’s in store for the Caps. A year in which they led the league with 121 points and 318 goals is down the drain.

Should Boudreau pay? Every series he’s ever coached has gone seven and now, the Caps have three times been eliminated on their own home ice. The first year against a more experienced Flyer club who went to the Conference Final before losing to the Crosby Pens. Last year after beating the Pens in Pitt forcing the second round series back home, they were embarrassed. Now, the indignity of being KO’d by an inferior team who just squeaked into the postseason, scoring 101 fewer goals.

How is it possible? In NHL playoffs, anything can happen. Especially if you face a hot goalie along with a team that believes they can get it done. Despite being severely outplayed after the Game Two collapse, Jacques Martin’s club still believed with even players saying how they played well in the first two and could win at Verizon. But they did it twice, stunning the Caps who became the first team in franchise history to blow a 3-1 series lead. This in a year where they went for it, thinking this was the team that could deliver the club’s first Stanley Cup. Now, they’ll have to play golf and rent Tin Cup.

Much credit goes to Martin who severely outcoached Boudreau, devising a great defensive game plan. Even if shots were lopsided, they made Ovechkin and the rest of the skilled Caps earn it. Also, the Canadiens never backed up in their end, instead aggressively getting in the lanes which was why so many shots never found their destination. To think he went to Carey Price in a Game Four loss before going back to Halak is probably the most amazing aspect of this upset. The way Halak responded was incredible, supplying the kind of heroic netminding necessary to shutdown the league’s best offense. Their power play was abysmal, connecting only once in 33 chances.

Green got victimized at even strength with awful reads and even worse defense, not fitting of a Norris candidate. It was his ill advised offensive zone penalty that led to Bergeron’s tally. And there was Green again out of position chasing instigator Max Lapierre for a meaningless hit while Moore snuck through and beat Varlamov for the crusher. He’s a great offensive D but has he not learned anything about the playoffs? John Carlson showed much more composure and Tom Poti was severely missed tonight. Sadly, Green and Jeff Schultz were the worst Washington blueliners in the series. Something which couldn’t happen. But then again, did anyone really see Semin not scoring one goal. True, he floats. But come on. When they signed Semin to that extension, I said they should package him and a No.1 for Ilya Kovalchuk. Even though he and the Devs came up short against the Flyers, the former Atlanta star played with much more passion. Think he wouldn’t have helped Ovechkin? Instead, the Caps are going home much earlier than anyone expected.

Finally, it’s hard to blame the goalies for this debacle. Varlamov was good after replacing Jose Theodore. He certainly wasn’t at fault the final three games. It was the Cap offense that disappeared. They refused to get dirty. And by that, screen Halak. He saw too many shots. If you face a goalie in the zone as the talented Slovak is, he’s likely going to stop shots he can see. Even with vet Mike Knuble having a solid series, there weren’t enough guys in red who got the jersey dirty. Tomas Fleischmann was reduced to a healthy scratch while Scott Walker (6:47) barely played. Eric Fehr was one of their most effective players in the series notching three goals and an assist. So, why only 10:48 with it on the line? Even Laich had a quiet first round despite getting his second marker.

It’s obvious that the Caps must take a hard look at what went wrong and make changes. More grit is needed up front and on D. They’ll also need a better goalie to help Varlamov. Nothing against Theodore who overcame so much in losing his son which should earn him the Masterton but he just isn’t reliable. His $4.5 million salary does come off. What will they do? Big names Evgeni Nabokov and Marty Turco are available but both will cost. What about a cheaper option like Chris Mason, Dan Ellis or Johan Hedberg? Whatever is decided, they can’t go into 2010-11 with Varlamov and Michael Neuvirth.

Is Boudreau to blame? He certainly will get tons of criticism for not having his team ready to close out the Habs earlier. Will he be fired? Tough to say. Regardless, the offseason just got a whole lot more interesting.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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