WASHINGTON - Two days ago, Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau devised a foolproof strategy to beat lava-hot Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak.
One problem: It's illegal.
Other than that though, it was a good plan.
"I've faced those goalies," Boudreau said after practice Tuesday. "And you just want to take your stick and hit them over the head with it.
"You can't do that."
So you need a second plan.
The second plan was this: Fire as many pucks at Halak as you can, hitting people, posts and crossbars until the puck finally goes in. Stand in his crease, push defensemen into his crease, and when someone pulls the stick from your hand, as was the case for John Carlson late in the third period last night, skate into the crease and knock the goalie down.
The puck got behind Halak twice in last night's stunning, seventh-game, 2-1 victory by the eighth-seeded Canadiens over top-seeded Washington, which blew a three-games-to-one lead in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. The first, in the first minute of the final period, was waived off because Mike Knuble was in the crease, made contact with Halak's pad as Alexander Ovechkin shot it. The second, with 2 minutes, 16 seconds left in the game, came after Montreal had scored its second goal a minute before.
That goal produced one last frenzy by the star-crossed Caps, including a six-on-four for the last 1:46 after pulling their goalie with a power play. Washington swarmed Halak one last time, had the puck slide hopefully across the crease, but their two best-looking chances were deflected away by probing sticks.
The Capitals have now been eliminated in a Game 7 at home each of the last three seasons. It was the Flyers in 2008. It was the Penguins in 2009.
And it was Halak and a band of iron-ankled Habs this time.
"Cluttering their own end," a stone-faced Knuble said afterwards. "They all wear those clear ankle guards on their skates. It's obvious one of their skill sets is to block shots. It made it difficult to get shots through."
After two periods last night, the Capitals had outshot the Canadiens, 24-11. After two periods, the Canadiens had blocked 26 shots to Washington's six.
That's 50 shots. In two periods. By the end, Montreal had blocked a mind-boggling 41 shots to match Halak's 41 saves. Andrei Markov blocked six. So did Hal Gill, who led the team in that department for the series.
"He was like a second goalie out there," Halak said.
It wouldn't have mattered, though, if Halak hadn't found the groove that made him an early MVP candidate of the Winter Olympics, after Slovakia stunned Ovechkin's Russian team in a quarterfinal game.
In its 4-1 loss to Montreal Monday night, Washington poured an incredible 94 shots toward the net. Seventeen missed, 23 were blocked, and 54 reached Halak. Over the seven-game series, Ovechkin put the puck on net 34 times, including 10 times last night. He had 31 of his shots blocked.
He scored five goals, had five assists. And in Game 7, he set up his team's only goal.
"Really disappointing," Ovechkin said as he slumped at his locker last night. "I don't have words to express it."
This latest loss was more about the perils of facing a hot goalie and the perils of being too good in the regular season than it was about Ovechkin and his big-game play, or even his leadership. It was more about the ineffectiveness of the team's other stars, particularly Alexander Semin, who had one point for the series, and defenseman Mike Green, whose tentative play was so noticeable that he was periodically booed by fans throughout the series - and lustily so last night.
Green was victimized on Montreal's second goal, pinching along the boards as a pass was feathered to wide-open Dominic Moore, who wristed the puck over Semyon Varlamov's right shoulder at 16:24 of the third period. A 76-point guy in the regular season, Green was held to three assists in this series and continually turned the puck over.
And yet it will be added to Ovechkin's resume, because that is what we do with our stars in sports. His stock has taken a hit over the last 12 months, beginning with that a 6-2 drubbing from the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the last Game 7 played in his home arena.
That series was, to some, a referendum on the best player in hockey. Because of his electric playmaking and reckless roaming, Ovechkin was a sexier choice over the more subtle style of Sidney Crosby. But Crosby outplayed him in that series, and then came Canada's surprisingly one-sided mastery of Russia in the Olympics.
Then came Crosby's gold-medal goal over the United States in overtime, and well, the debate seems silly now.
Ovechkin has become hockey's Allen Iverson.
Crosby, at age 22, is Kobe, or headed that way.
And Halak? Just 2 months ago, he threatened to be the story of the Olympics. He stopped 36 of 37 shots and six more in a shootout as Slovakia stunned Ovechkin and Russia, 2-1, then backstopped its improbable 4-3 win over defending gold medalist Sweden, making a huge save on Nicklas Lidstrom with 3 seconds left.
But the Canadiens squeaked by him in the semis, and Halak allowed three third-period goals to Finland in the bronze-medal game. He wore out, simply.
He gets Crosby and the Penguins next. Logic dictates he will wear out. Then again, it should have dictated that already.
"I thought we had a good chance to win the Stanley Cup this year," Boudreau said. "I would have bet my house that they wouldn't have beaten us three games in a row, or that we would have scored three goals in almost 140 shots . . .
He paused, talked about the distraught locker room he had just come from.
"Sometimes you don't score goals," he said, "because the other team takes them away."
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