Commentary

Caps' win brings drama, and questions

Updated: April 18, 2010, 3:16 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON -- So, this is what happens when you poke the bear with a sharp stick. You get mauled. Badly. Maybe critically.

Now, this bear of which we speak, the Washington Capitals, may not have had lights-out goaltending and may have looked a little like a pack of puppies running in a park on defense, but my goodness can they light it up.

The Caps gave up goals on the first two shots the Montreal Canadiens took in Saturday's Game 2.

[+] EnlargeNicklas Backstrom
Geoff Burke/US PresswireNicklas Backstrom scored the first hat trick of his NHL career in Saturday's Game 2.

They were down 4-1 late in the second period.

They tied the score at 4 and then allowed the Canadiens to take yet another lead with 5:06 left in regulation.

And, somehow, none of that mattered.

Somehow, the best team in hockey during the regular season found a reserve of urgency that had been hibernating through most of the first five periods of this Eastern Conference quarterfinals series and simply stole back a game they looked determined to lose.

First, John Carlson -- a glory magnet and player people are already looking at to win rookie of the year honors next season -- tied the game with 1:21 left in regulation. Then, Nicklas Backstrom, now among the top two or three centers in the game, won it just 31 seconds into overtime with his third goal of the game, ripping a shot past Jaroslav Halak before the Canadiens netminder even flinched.

6-5. The Capitals win. The series is tied at 1.

"By no stretch did we probably deserve to win, but we got lucky and we did," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "We know we're not out of the woods. There's a lot of people that are going to say that Montreal's outplayed us for two games and they were on the road.

"We have to play an awful lot better. We have to tighten up, obviously, if we want to succeed anywhere, whether it's this series or beyond. But right now, we're just worried about winning the next game."

Yes, the Capitals did tie the series, even though it looked very much like they were going to fall into a shocking 2-0 hole with Games 3 and 4 set for the raucous Bell Center in Montreal on Monday and Wednesday.

They received commanding performances from Backstrom, who not only scored the overtime winner but also scored a crucial goal late in the second period that narrowed the gap to 4-2 (he also had an assist in the game). And Alex Ovechkin rebounded from a tepid performance in Game 1 (he had no shots) with a four-point night (a goal and three assists). The captain was back to his rambunctious self, knocking players down all over the ice and, at one point, trying to knock Brian Gionta's block off during a melee early in the third period.

But there were the defensive miscues that helped create the great pit from which the Caps had to extricate themselves in Game 2. Mike Green is off to another horrid postseason start, a troubling sign given his miscues during last year's playoff run. Jeff Schultz, who led all NHLers with a plus-50 rating during the regular season, has also been off early in this series.

"I didn't say anything during the game, but we will talk to them about a couple of things," Boudreau said.

And then there's the goaltending.

Boudreau said he pulled Jose Theodore after the second Montreal goal to try to re-energize his team, not necessarily because he blamed him for allowing the goals by Gionta and Andrei Kostitsyn, who also had a hat trick Saturday.

[+] EnlargeSemyon Varlamov and Jose Theodore
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesAfter Jose Theodore, left, allowed two goals on two shots, he was replaced by Semyon Varlamov.

"I do know that we'd expended an awful lot of energy in the first eight minutes of the game and we were down 2-0, so I thought that it might be (a) a lift from the crowd, and (b) a lift on the bench," Boudreau said. "I don't know if it worked or it didn't work, but we ended up winning."

Semyon Varlamov, who replaced Theodore after one playoff game last spring, came on in relief and was fine. Not great, but fine, allowing three goals on 22 shots.

"I haven't really thought about who's playing Monday yet," Boudreau said.

And so, the series shifts to Montreal with perhaps more questions raised than answered for all the drama and excitement of the first two tilts.

For the Canadiens, looking big picture, they got what all visiting teams say they want: a road split.

"We came here for one. We got our one. Now it's time to go home and play," said Mike Cammalleri, who had three assists in Game 2.

Yet when you have a team as talented as the Caps on the ropes and then let up, there has to be some concern this wasn't just an opportunity squandered, but rather a seminal moment, a series changer. When this is over, will the Canadiens look back on this night and say, "That was the moment when the series turned, the moment when the series was lost?"

"Any loss in the playoffs is a big loss," Gionta said. "Obviously, we need to learn from it and forget about it as quick as we can. That's another key to playoff hockey."

Montreal coach Jacques Martin wasn't pleased with many aspects of his team's play.

"I think it was a situation where mistakes costs us," he said. "I think when you play a team of this caliber, you can't make the kind of mistakes that we did to give them some momentum and give them an opportunity to win the game."

He's right.

Holding a 4-1 lead late in the second period, the Canadiens had an easy opportunity to clear the puck out of their zone and didn't, and Backstrom scored with 1:37 left in the frame. Then, before the period was out, Cammalleri took a slashing penalty in the offensive zone with 21 seconds left, which gave the Capitals a power play to start the third. The Capitals didn't score there, but it allowed them to start generating momentum for a period in which they outscored the Habs 3-1.

"We had some defensive breakdowns, mistakes that we don't usually make," said Tomas Plekanec, who looked like he was going to be the hero du jour for the second straight game. "Overall, I thought we did a great job."

After scoring the overtime winner in Game 1, Plekanec was the one who scored the Canadiens' fifth goal Saturday, turning Green around on a 2-on-1 with 5:06 left in regulation. It was a goal that could have -- no, should have -- put the Caps down for good. It might have even felt that way on the bench.

"A little bit. Our heads kind of bowed down on the bench when he scored that goal," Washington defenseman Tom Poti said.

Whatever the deflation, it did not last long, as Carlson tied the score to set the table for Backstrom's overtime heroics.

"We kind of got down for about five seconds and said, 'Hey, let's just see where the chips fall,'" Poti said. "We're never out of it. It doesn't matter if we're down by two goals or three goals. We've got some good firepower on this team and they kind of stepped up in the third for us."

And so, we head to Montreal with the series tied and the bear awake.

Now, the question is whether the Canadiens can put the bear back in its cage or whether it's out for good.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.