Commentary

Habs stars, not Caps, come to play

Updated: April 16, 2010, 1:45 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON -- If only Tomas Plekanec would grow a mullet. Then the whole Jaromir Jagr thing might really take off.

Plekanec, at the center of a war of words with Washington netminder Jose Theodore on the eve of the playoffs, put an exclamation point on the discussion Thursday night by scoring the overtime winner late in the first overtime to give the Montreal Canadiens a 3-2 victory over the Capitals in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinals series.

Before the game, someone penciled in No. 68 -- Jagr's number -- beside Plekanec's name.

[+] EnlargeAlex Ovechkin
Mitchell Layton/NHLI via Getty ImagesCapitals captain Alex Ovechkin was held without a shot on goal in Thursday's Game 1.

"I had a '68' on the board for the lineup, and that was pretty good, too," said Plekanec, who suggested before the series that Washington's goaltending might not be as strong as that of other teams in the conference, after which Theodore jokingly referred to Plekanec as "Tomas Jagr."

It made it more than a little fitting when Plekanec struck the deciding blow in the series opener, ripping a shot past Theodore with 6:41 left and giving the Canadiens a surprise victory over a Washington team many believe is Stanley Cup-bound.

"I just wanted to shoot the puck. Just wanted to shoot the puck, hit the net," Plekanec said. "And then, Cammy [Mike Cammalleri] was coming there, so I was thinking he might get the rebound and I would be going to the net after that, too.

"It's a huge goal for our team. For me personally, I'm happy to score that goal, but it doesn't matter who scored the goal. In the playoffs, stats [don't] matter. [We've] got to do our job, and that's what we did."

Plekanec again insisted that he meant no disrespect to Theodore, who played with him in Montreal.

"I didn't take it personally," he said. "It wasn't right what was in the newspapers … my mind was clear, I didn't do anything bad. I didn't say anything wrong about Theo. I would never do that. I respect him big-time."

If Jagr-gate ended up being kind of a surprise punch line after the game, the underlying story of this opener was the elevated play of the Canadiens' top players and the surprisingly tepid performance by Alex Ovechkin, who failed to register a single shot on net. It was just the second time this season the Capitals captain didn't register a shot, a shocking stat given that he led the NHL in shots in the regular season despite missing 10 games.

"He didn't play good. They gapped up real well on him, but I don't think Alex played very well," Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I can't put my finger on it right now. You know when you get 50 shots on goal and Ovechkin doesn't get any and you've got four power plays or something. They took him away pretty good, but I just didn't think he was very good tonight."

For his part, Ovechkin didn't seem too rattled by the favored Caps' suddenly being down a game.

"It's the playoffs. You try to do well every shift," Ovechkin said. "It's one game. We'll have 24 hours to think about what we did wrong."

So much for trying to draw a line from the end of the regular season to the start of the playoffs. The Canadiens staggered into the postseason by winning just three times in their last 11 games and ended up with the eighth seed and a date with the NHL's runaway regular-season leaders from Washington.

Few figured this series would last more than four or five games. Through the first period Thursday, the talent gap between the two teams was on full display. The Capitals outshot the Canadiens 19-7, and it appeared as though the only hope for Montreal was that Washington would get sore arms from shooting so much.

For their part, the Habs didn't manage their first shot on goal until the game was almost 7 minutes old. But thanks to a power-play goal from Cammalleri, who had failed to score in his final 12 regular-season games, the Canadiens took a 1-0 lead midway through the first. The Caps would tie the score at 1 before the end of the frame.

"I think, especially in the first, they created a lot of chances," Cammalleri said. "They are definitely that powerhouse we expected. They showed us what they could do in that first period, getting that many chances."

But by the midpoint of the second period, the Canadiens had begun to assert themselves. Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez and Plekanec all contributed in long stretches when the Canadiens controlled the play, forcing Theodore into a number of difficult saves. Even when the Capitals took a 2-1 lead 47 seconds into the third on a Nicklas Backstrom shot from the slot, the Canadiens didn't buckle.

About seven minutes after Backstrom's tally, Gomez made a terrific play through the neutral zone and raced to the net to tap in the tying goal thanks to a beautiful Gionta pass.

Not surprisingly, the Caps weren't happy, but there was little evidence of panic. A year ago, of course, they dropped the first two games of their opening-round series against the New York Rangers and trailed 3-1 at one point before storming back to win three straight.

"I think we didn't play as good as we could, and hopefully we can talk about it tomorrow and get ready for Saturday," Backstrom said. "It's just the first game, and we have to talk about what we did wrong and get ready again."

A couple of things to consider moving forward. First, the Canadiens played as well as they're likely to play Thursday night. The challenge will be in trying to replicate that level of performance. Second, it has been awhile since the Caps played in games that had any great importance, and it will take some time for them to get into playoff mode.

"They might not have played very well the last 11 games, but they sure ramped it up," Boudreau said of the Habs. "I thought today, they played a pretty solid game. I think our best players weren't our best players tonight and their best players were."

Boudreau had better hope he gets a more Ovechkin-like performance from his captain in Saturday's Game 2, and the Canadiens surely hope Plekanec continues to channel Mr. Jagr.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.