For now, Halak, Habs have last laugh
Which makes you wonder just where the will comes from to turn in a performance like the one Halak delivered Friday as the Canadiens gutted out a 2-1 victory over the Capitals to send their Eastern Conference quarterfinals series to a sixth game Monday in Montreal.
Halak turned aside 37 pucks on the night as the Habs did something they had been unable to do in the first four games of the series: hold a lead against the powerful Caps.
"In the playoffs, every game is a different game, and if you lose, you've got to put it behind yourself because then, if you still think about it, you put yourself in a bad spot, and we don't want it," Halak said after the game.
Nothing we saw from Halak in Games 2 and 3 suggested he might be capable of this or, if he was capable of it, that he would actually be able to deliver such a performance. After playing well in a Game 1 overtime win, Halak seemed to slowly dissolve before our very eyes. The Canadiens led 4-1 in Game 2 but ended up losing in overtime, 6-5, as Halak gave up six goals on 37 shots.
The dissolution continued in Game 3, when he allowed three goals on four shots in the second period and was yanked by coach Jacques Martin in favor of Carey Price. Price inspired little confidence in a 6-3 loss in Game 4, the third straight loss for the Canadiens. So, with the Canadiens out of chances, what was Martin to do? He threw Halak against the wall like a piece of spaghetti in Game 5 and hoped he stuck.
"Coach made the call that Carey was in the nets, and I support his call, and tonight, I mean, I'm happy he gave me the confidence and he gave me the call," Halak said.
The Canadiens opened the scoring at Verizon Center for the third straight game. Mike Cammalleri wired a shot past Semyon Varlamov just 1:30 in, and Travis Moen, promoted to the Habs' second line with Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez on this night, scored his first of the postseason 5½ minutes later.
Halak kept the Capitals at bay until the second period, when Alex Ovechkin poked home a loose puck to cut the Habs' lead in half. At that point, the question became "How long until the walls cave in again?"
But they didn't. Not even a little bit.
After allowing three Washington power plays in the first period, the Canadiens were short-handed just once in the second and once more in the third. They didn't allow odd-man rushes. They didn't run around in their own zone. They didn't allow the Caps' skill to overwhelm them as it had earlier in the series.
"Even though they had 38 shots or so, guys blocked a lot of shots, and every time there was a rebound, they were there for me," Halak said. "Tonight, we had the lead going into the third and everybody did the right things. We didn't back up. We did what we were supposed to."
It was in that final frame that Halak was at his finest.
At one point during a Washington power play, he stopped a high, hard Alexander Semin shot from the slot and then dove across to get his blocker on a Tomas Fleischmann effort from the bottom of the faceoff circle.
"The one on Semin, I was in the right place, and Fleischmann, he kind of waited a little bit and he gave me a little bit of time to move side to side and just hit me in the blocker," Halak said. "There was a little bit of traffic. He shot it through some guys, and I was in the right place and it hit me in the blocker, and it counts."
Washington coach Bruce Boudreau was complimentary of Halak's play, but was unhappy with a number of elements of his team's game. He bristled when asked whether he thought the Caps let an opportunity slip away.
"Of course, what do you think? We let it slip away," he said. "We had Game 5 in our building, and we play like crap for the first 10 minutes and the game's over."
The Capitals' power play still stinks; they have gone a desultory 1-for-24 in the series, but there are more troubling concerns for their coach.
"The other reason is that we're not getting 20 guys playing," Boudreau said. "We're getting 13 and 14 guys every night rather than everybody coming to play. Tonight, we had five or six passengers again."
The coach challenged his goal scorers to be better, to not miss the good chances that they missed Friday night. Semin, though credited with a game-high nine shots, still has yet to score this postseason.
"But he did put in a better effort, I thought, than he had put into the three or four previous games," Boudreau said. "But still, if we don't get him scoring, then it's too easy to check certain guys. He's just got to come through; it's 12 games in a row now in the playoffs that he hasn't gotten one."
In the end, this is the kind of game that makes the playoffs so compelling, the demonstration of how sheer will can overcome fear and uncertainty and erase self-doubt.
"We've got a bunch of guys here that don't want to lose and we don't want to finish our season," Canadiens defenseman Ryan O'Byrne said. "We played pretty loose, actually. We said, 'You know what? We've got really nothing to lose. We're down 3-1, and we don't want to go home [for the summer].' As a group of guys, we all just rallied and played a real good solid game tonight."
After Game 2, Ovechkin made sport of Halak, saying he had watched video of the netminder taking a drink of water and his hand was shaking. Ovechkin surmised publicly that Halak must have been nervous. There were jokes about it in the Capitals' dressing room.
On Friday night, Halak stuffed the whole water-bottle-gate affair back in the Capitals' faces. He paused for a moment Friday night when asked about it, and it wasn't clear whether he was going to answer.
"You know what. He can say what he wants," Halak said finally. "Maybe it shows on a video, but I think if you squeeze the bottle, your hand's going shake. That's what I think. So I don't think I was nervous, even tonight. Same thing I did tonight, I was squeezing the bottle the same way."
How will this turn out in Game 6? Washington is a very good hockey team. It could light up Halak again and no one would be all that surprised. But for a night, anyway, Halak and the rest of the Canadiens summoned up enough willpower to turn that joke back on those who thought the Capitals would have the last laugh.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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