Tonight from Washington, we get one more example of why games are three periods long and series are a best of seven.
It’s to weed out the pretenders; to see how magic somebody’s wand really is; to examine just how long it’s humanly possible to support your body weight – and your entire team’s – with your head.
And to find out if a team that dominated for 82 games under less duress has what it takes to make sure they play an eighth contest in the second season, when the intensity jumps.
The Montreal Canadiens forced a decisive game with the Washington Capitals that nobody thought would be necessary, especially when the Habs fell behind 3-1 in the series. But Jaroslav Halak has stopped 91 of the 93 shots he’s faced since then and here we are, witnesses to an eighth seed that barely scraped into the playoffs in a position to take out the team that finished with more points than any other club this NHL season.
The temptation here is to suggest that if the Habs can hang in for a period, the impossible creeps closer to comprehendible. Then again, that didn’t really help the Phoenix Coyotes Tuesday night, who got 17 saves from Ilya Bryzgalov in a scoreless opening period, but still couldn’t escape being buried 6-1 by a Detroit team that had enough road in the series and game to demonstrate it was simply the superior squad.
Washington has one more chance to show the world just how much better it is than Montreal. The Caps forwards will invade the Habs zone in waves, crashing into a group of defensemen and a goalie who’ve seen enough action to feel like they’re playing in Game 7 of Round 3.
Logic dictates the levy will break at some point; a softie will get through Halak; Alexander Semin, who’s without a goal in his past 13 playoff games, will break through; Mike Green will have a game befitting of a Norris candidate, not a candidate for Most Tentative Star Player of the Series.
Then again, we left logic scrambling to explain its use when a small goalie drafted 271st overall in 2003 stymied the best offense in the league; and Hal Gill, widely mocked for being as mobile as an oak tree, suddenly teamed with Josh Gorges to form a viable shutdown tandem.
The Canadiens need their Slovakian savoir to come through again, but they’re probably going to need a little help from Washington’s goalie, too. Semyon Varlamov has been pretty solid for the Caps, but looked a little wobbly in Game 6 when Montreal seized an early 2-0 lead, especially on Mike Cammalleri’s second goal.
Washington completed a 3-1 series comeback itself last spring, bouncing a hot Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers in Game 7. The Rangers managed only 15 shots (and just one in the third period) at Varlamov in that contest, won 2-1 by the Capitals.
Montreal is going to have to muster up more of an attack than that. But, really, how much of this game do you see being played in Washington’s end? That means the Canadiens snipers either have to be spot on when they do get a chance – something they’re definitely capable of – or Varlamov needs to be the anti-Halak.
The fact we got this far without mentioning Alex Ovechkin means it’s understood we can expect Ovie to be all over the place in this showdown. His two major concerns are not being over-amped to the point of reckless play and atoning for last year’s missed breakaway early in the Round 2 of Game 7 against Pittsburgh that, for all we know, could have dramatically changed the complexion of a game ultimately dominated by the Penguins.
It would do wonders for the collective Caps ego to see their best player show Montreal’s super-hot stopper that he’s still the one who’s in control out there.
The beauty of two teams playing seven games is it always provides definitive separation. The Habs have been operating with zero margin for error all series and they’ve survived this long; the Capitals have the knockout-punch cocked and one more chance to deliver it.
Is Montreal smoke and mirrors or about to realize Washington’s biggest fears? There’s just enough hockey left to find out.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.
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