- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 17, 2010

With Washington’s season perhaps on the line, Nicklas Backstrom picked a good time to record his first NHL hat trick, scoring three times in the final 23 minutes of play to give the Capitals a 6-5 overtime win over Montreal.

Facing a 4-1 deficit to the Canadiens late in the second period and hearing the boos from some disgruntled fans at Verizon Center, the Capitals kicked their game into high gear against the upset-minded club from Quebec, erasing Montreal’s three-goal edge and then fighting off a late Tomas Pleckanec tally to force the overtime thanks to John Carlson’s goal with 1:21 left in regulation.

Backstrom then capped his hat trick with a blast :31 into the extra session, shooting the puck past Montreal netminder Jaroslav Halak, and sending the sellout crowd of 18,377 into a frenzy. The goal was big for Washington, as it prevented the Capitals from falling into an 0-2 hole to a lower seed for the second straight season, and also got the Caps a win that coach Bruce Boudreau said was “lucky.”

The night certainly didn’t start off well for Washington, as goaltender Jose Theodore was chased after allowing two goals on just two shots in the first nine minutes of the first period, with Boudreau bringing in Semyon Varlamov to try and send a wake-up call to the Capitals. The Habs had Washington on the ropes late in the second as Andrei Kostitsyn completed a hat trick of his own, putting the Caps down by three goals and seemingly ready to head home to Bell Centre with a commanding lead in the best-of-seven series.

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But Backstrom struck with 97 seconds left in the period to cut the lead to 4-2, then after Alexander Ovechkin scored his first goal of the postseason early in the third. Backstrom added the equalizer halfway through the third before notching the winner in the extra session.

“[Backstrom] had a good game,” Boudreau said. “Nicky’s a great player. Great players come to the floor when you need them.”

Ovechkin also rebounded from his pointless Game 1, recording three assists to go along with his third-period tally.

“Yeah, I feel pretty good today, especially in the first period,” Ovechkin said — after playing some basketball with Backstrom on the Wizards’ practice court during Boudreau’s postgame press conference. “I got into the game, got some hits, made some shots. I think I played not bad today.”

Montreal jumped on top one minute in, as after the Caps got some good chances on Halak, Brian Gionta unleashed a shot that Theodore misplayed badly, putting the visitors up just 60 seconds into the frame.

The Canadiens got their second goal on their second shot of the period, as Kostitsyn rifled a shot past Theodore with just 7:58 gone. After seeing his starting netminder yield the two goals, Boudreau was quick with the hook, making a change to Varlamov for the second consecutive year.

“I tried to concentrate on the game and was thinking only about the puck and about how to stop it,” Varlamov said through an interpreter afterwards of coming in relief.

The wake-up call from their head coach paid dividends, as Washington got on the board just 2:23 after the change. Eric Fehr got a clean breakaway thanks to a pass from Tomas Fleischmann and beat Halak with a shot over the netminder’s blocker with 9:39 left in the period to bring the Caps within one.

The game settled down a bit after the wild twists and turns of the first 10-plus minutes, with Ovechkin getting a few nice bodychecks as the Caps started to try to punish Montreal’s smaller forwards with some physical play. The Caps got some good chances in the closing seconds, but Montreal kept the lead into the first intermission.

Montreal got the first power play of the night just :37 into the second, as Eric Belanger was called for tripping Michael Cammalleri along the boards. However, the Caps turned in a good penalty-killing effort to remain just a goal down.

Varlamov also settled in, making some of his best saves in the middle portion of the period, particularly one where Scott Gomez fed Benoit Pouliot in front, but kept the Caps within a goal for the first half of the second period.

Montreal got that two-goal edge back when Kostitsyn potted second of the night, as he moved in down low in front of the cage and took a nice Cammalleri pass and beat Varlamov with 8:54 left to play in the second.

The Canadiens then cashed in on a good chance to really take command with Brooks Laich in the box, as Jaroslav Spacek’s shot was deflected by Kostitsyn past Varlamov with 2:16 to play. The goal was Kostitsyn’s third of the night, and the Caps were squarely in danger falling behind in the series 0-2 for the second straight year.

But the three-goal deficit seemed to spark the Caps to action, and they managed to rally with three unanswered tallies.

“We were a desperate team,” Fleischmann said afterwards of the rally. “If we got behind two games in the series it would be really tough for us to come back. We were a desperate team — that was the difference.”

Backstrom got the Caps back to within two, taking a shot with Mike Knuble creating traffic in front of Halak, cutting the lead to 4-2 with 1:37 left in the frame.

“We have that side of our team — we never give up,” Backstrom said. “The second period was kind of embarrassing for us. But we bounced back.”

Washington nearly cut it to one when Tom Poti had a good look in front in the period’s final minute, but his drive was stopped point-blank by Halak in the final minute of the period.

The Capitals capped the period with their first power play of the night, as Cammalleri was called for slashing with just :20.9 left, opening the door for the Caps to move closer.

Washington didn’t convert with the extra man, but did use the momentum gained with the extra man to pull within one.

Ovechkin got his first goal of the playoffs with 2:56 gone in the period, as Carlson blasted a shot from the blueline which Halak stopped. However, Ovechkin lunged for the puck, poking it between the goalie’s pads to pull the Caps within one.

Ovechkin got involved in a scrum on the next shift, as Pouliot barreled into Varlamov on a scoring chance. After Gionta put the puck where the cage was, celebrating like he had scored after the collision, Ovechkin took exception to the late shot. Scott Gomez then came from behind and whacked the Caps’ captain, and Tom Poti dropped the gloves with Gomez for the first fight of the series with 3:30 gone in the third.

However, what momentum the Caps got from the goal and fight was nearly slowed by an Alexander Semin penalty with 4:13 gone in the period, giving the Habs a chance to take back the momentum. Washington’s penalty killers did keep the game to a one-goal affair with a strong kill.

The Caps then sent the sellout crowd into a frenzy just before the halfway mark of the frame, as Ovechkin fed Backstrom in front of the net for his second goal of the night with 10:13 to play. Backstrom broke in front of Halak and tipped an Ovechkin pass past the goaltender before he had a chance to set for the shot, and pulled Washington even.

After failing to cash in on a Hal Gill interference call, Montreal retook the lead as Tomas Pleckanec — the overtime hero in Game 1 — made his bid for his second game-winning goal of the series.

Green wasn’t able clear the puck at the Capitals blueline and it was kept in by Cammalleri, who broke in and fed Plekanec, who beat Varlamov just inside the post with 5:08 left and quieting the crowd.

The Caps got a late chance to get the fifth goal, as Pouliot went to the box with 4:48 left in regulation for tripping Carlson inside the Washington zone. Washington didn’t convert with the extra man. However, Carlson got his chance on a delayed penalty to Montreal, as he broke in and blasted a feed from Backstrom past Halak with 1:21 left in the third to force the second overtime game of the series.

“It was a last-minute goal so we were all coming in hot,” Carlson said. “We just said, ‘Relax — get back to our game. Let’s not try to do too much.’ Certainly it didn’t work because we went out like a ball of fire, but it was good.”

The session didn’t last long, however, as Backstrom recorded a hat trick with just :31 gone in the extra session, evening the series at one with a shot that beat Halak as the erupted.

The goal could change the complexion of the series, as Washington was able to hold off a strong upset bid with a strong finish.

“We just have to play our game, it doesn’t matter how they play, if we play our game finish checks, shoot the puck, go to the net it is going to be ours,” Ovechkin said afterwards. “We’re going to win. I think if we are going to play the same way we played in the third period [today] we are going to be successful.”

For their part, despite the loss, several Canadiens said they were happy to earn a split on the road.

“We came here for one,” Cammalleri said. “We got our one. Now it’s time to go home and play. … Were still getting better. Were still excited about our potential. It was a good game.”

Boudreau said he was relieved the Caps could rally to take the contest before heading to Montreal for Monday’s Game 3.

“The only way we were going to win tonight was if we decided to go all offense,” he said. “By no stretch did we probably deserve to win, but we got lucky and we did.

“We know we’re not out of the woods. There [are] probably a lot of people that are going to say that Montreal outplayed us for two games and they were on the road and now we’re in their building and we have to play a whole lot better. We have to tighten up obviously if we want to succeed anywhere, whether it’s this series or beyond, but right now were just worried about winning the next game.”

WASHINGTON CAPITALS vs. MONTREAL CANADIENS
(Montreal leads series, 1-0)
Game 1: Montreal 3, Washington 2 (OT)
Game 2: Washington 6, Montreal 5 (OT)
Game 3: April 19 at Montreal, 7 p.m. ET, CSN
Game 4: April 21 at Montreal, 7 p.m. ET, CSN
Game 5: April 23 at Washington, 7 p.m. ET, CSN
Game 6*: April 26 at Montreal, 7 p.m. ET, CSN
Game 7*: April 28 at Washington, 7 p.m., CSN
* = if necessary