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Varlamov, Caps grab series lead in Montreal

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MONTREAL | As the Capitals' series against the Canadiens shifted north, so too did the goaltending controversy. Except on this night, it was the other team wearing red facing questions in net after a 5-1 Washington win.

Following the fallout in Washington over Jose Theodore's short outing Saturday night before being yanked from the cage, Semyon Varalmov got his first start of the series in Game 3 of the series at Bell Centre after coming in relief during Saturday's overtime win.

With Theodore planted on the Capitals' bench -- although not before he heard a large dose of "Tay-O" jeers from the Habs faithful during Washington's warmups -- the Canadiens fueled early by their loud sellout crowd land looking to see if the eighth-seeded Habs could grab the series lead.

But Varlamov made some good saves to keep the Habs off the board in during the first-period surge, then the pressure then shifted to his counterpart for Montreal early in the second period -- and Canadiens starting netminder Halak didn't fare as well.

"He was really good early," Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said afterwards. "He made two big saves. The one on [Brian] Gionta, on their penalty kill was a really big save and there was another one somewhere in the first period that I thought was very solid. He was very solid in net tonight and he kept us in [the game]."

After the Capitals scored three goals in the first 8:33 of the second period -- including a short-handed tally -- Halak was unceremoniously pulled from the contest, and bringing in Carey Price off the bench. With being a Montreal netminder being one of the most difficult positions to play in sports, there certainly will be a lot of talk over the next two days if Halak will return Wednesday as the Canadiens will look to hold serve at home.

The biggest negative for Washington on this night was the struggling power-play unit, which is still scoreless in the series despite some chances late as the Canadiens grew frustrated after falling behind early in the second. The Caps finished the night 0-for-8 with the extra-man, and now the NHL's best regular-season unit is 0-for-15 for the series.

"We [stink]," Boudreau said of his power play unit, half in jest. "It's the worst stretch we've gone through, but you go through stretches like that, you get frustrated. I thought we had some good looks and chances, but none went in."

Varlamov started strong, making several key stops as the Caps allowed a couple of odd-man rushes that Montreal couldn't convert -- and one golden chance that Jaroslav Spacek missed over a wide-open cage.

The Caps' netminder made his first nice save with 5:42 gone in regulation, stopping a shot by Josh Georges.

Washington then got its first power-play chance of the night, as Mike Knuble was clipped by Andrei Kostitsyn behind the Montreal goal with 7:52 elapsed.

However, Montreal got the best two scoring chances during the two minutes, even getting a 2-on-1 break on Varlamov as well as Gomez getting a good wrist shot off during the kill from in tight that the Russian netminder stopped.

The Habs had their best chance of the night to grab the lead with Varlamov down after a scramble in front, but Spacek couldn't convert with the gaping net, shooting the puck over the cage and keeping the game scoreless.

Maxim Lapierre got a good chance of his own in with just over six minutes to play, and Jeff Schultz was called for cross-checking the forward after the threat. Although the Habs started out the advantage strong, the Caps got control of the penalty kill and then were able to keep the game scoreless.

The Caps' struggling power play got a second chance on the night when Tomas Plekanec was called for tripping Alexander Semin in the Caps' zone with 3:20 left in the period -- even with Backstrom taking over Ovechkin's spot on the point. But it didn't help, as the Caps couldn't even get a shot on net and continued to look a bit disorganized with the power play.

While Montreal outshot the Caps 10-7 through the first 20 minutes, Varlamov kept the Caps in the game as the Habs had much better chances on goal. That proved to be the difference, as once Washington broke on top, they were able to chase Halak from the net with three goals in the early part of the period.

"I though our goal was to come out even [after the first period," Boudreau said "But our goal was if we could get out of the first period even, and we did, so we felt good about ourselves."

The Canadiens even got a good chance out of the intermission as well, as Marc-Andrei Bergeron had a good look on Varlamov . Tomas Fleischmann was called for hooking Andrei Markov behind the Montreal cage :54 into the period, giving the Habs a power play.

However, the Caps were the team to cash in just :11 into the Canadiens' power-play, as Boyd Gordon and Mike Knuble broke in on a 2-on-1 and Gordon hacked a rebound past Halak for the first goal of the game.

"To get that first goal, it made us feel good," Ovechkin said.

"We got a huge break on that 5-on-4 and that turned the game around for us," Eric Fehr added.

Varlamov made a nice save on Brian Gionta during the rest of the kill, and the Caps were able to hld the Habs off the board. That proved to be big, since Washington then made it 2-0 with 4:42 gone in the period as Brooks Laich's long shot from the point eluded Halak.

After Varlamov made a nice save with his mask with just over eight minutes gone in the period, the Caps then broke in on Montreal and Eric Fehr deposited a rebound of a Laich shot past Halak, putting the Caps in control of the contest with three goals in a 7:27 span.

Canadiens coach Jacques Martin then yanked Halak from the net after he allowed three goals on 13 shots, putting in Carey Price -- who faced Washington in all four of the team's regular-season meetings -- to see if he could stop the Washington surge.

"We tried to change the rhythm of the game and get the momentum back," Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said. "There was no message to Jaroslav."

But, it didn't stop the Caps, as with the Canadiens forced to open up the flow down by three goals, Alexander Ovechkin took advantage of the extra space he didn't get in the first period, netting his second goal of the series thanks to a nice behind-the-net feed from Backstrom to put Washington up 4-0 with 6:10 left in the period.

Down by four, Montreal began to unravel, taking a couple of bad minors to let the Caps' struggling power-play a chance to work out the kinks.

But the Caps -- seemingly somewhat content with the status of the scoreboard -- didn't press as much as early they did in the period and eventually Laich took a minor to give Monteal an abbreviated power-play.

With that advantage, Tomas Plekanec finally gave the home crowd something to cheer about when he poked his own rebound 2:25 into the third period, as Montreal has connected with a power-play tally in every game of the series so far.

Boudreau even used his timeout to try and stop Montreal's momentum.

"We were playing not to lose at that point, and allowing them to come on and making afraid passes," he said. "We had to get back to playing the game. I've seen it happen too many times you play not to lose, and you end up losing."

Knuble gave Montreal another chance with the power-play, but this time, the Capitals held to temper the momentum the Canadiens had built following the goal.

Washington added an extra tally in the game's final minute, as Matt Bradley poked the puck past Halak with :44.1 left to play to seal the final at 5-1.

The game was an aberration of the first seven games of the series, as four of the six games had needed overtime, and only one in the series decided by more than one goal.

But now, the Canadiens have to decide which goaltender gives them the best chance against the Caps' offense that now has nine goals in the last five periods of play. While Halak helped the Canadiens win Game 1, he has wilted as Washington turned up its offense in the last two games of the series.

On the Washington bench, it appears the controversy is settled for now, as Varlamov's effort were a big reason that the Caps are able to take a 2-1 series lead Monday thanks to his strong play in the first period. While Boudreau didn't say for sure Varlamov would start in Game 4, he certainly indicated he'd be his goalie of choice as Washington looks to take command of the series.

Game 4 will be held Wednesday night at Bell Centre before the series shifts back to Washington Friday night for Game 5.

About the Author
Ted Starkey

Ted Starkey

Ted Starkey, a Web editor for the continuous news desk, has written for and edited high-traffic websites, including AOL News, AOL Sports, FanHouse.com, USAHockey.com and BuffaloBills.com. He also has covered the 2002 and 2010 Winter Olympics, Stanley Cup playoffs, NFL, NHL, MLB and NCAA hockey during his career.

He is a graduate of American University, with a double major in ...

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