What had been a season of high hopes for the Washington Capitals came to a crashing halt Wednesday night as the Montreal Canadiens completed their rally to claim the best-of-seven series 4-3 with a 2-1 victory at Verizon Center.
The top-ranked offense in the NHL's regular season was held to just three goals in the series' last three games, and the top power-play unit in the regular-season finished with just one goal on 33 chances during the seven-game series. Washington, who had taken a 3-1 series lead just a week ago in Montreal, never got the fourth win it needed to advance and dropped three straight to be eliminated from the playoffs.
Conversely, the Canadiens took advantage of a bad Mike Green penalty in the final minute of the first period, as Marc-Andre Bergeron scored with :29.1 left in the frame. Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak and a good effort by the Montreal defenders made that tally stand up for nearly the final two periods, frustrating the Caps and the sellout crowd of 18,377 before a late Dominic Moore goal with 3:36 to play proved to be the game-winner.
"We knew right away [we could win the series]," Canadiens forward Brian Gionta said. "Right off the bat of the series. We played them hard the first four games even though we weren't up in the series, we were happy with how we played them. We knew that we could do some things better and really bring it to them. And that's what we did the last three."
Brooks Laich got the Caps' lone goal with 2:16 to play, and Washington got a chance with the power play when Ryan O'Byrne took a penalty with just 1:44 to play, but couldn't get the equalizer.
The Caps could not adapt offensively to the Canadiens taking away their space, as several Washington chances were blocked by Montreal defenders. Washington's 40-goal scorer, Alexander Semin, was held without a goal in the series, as his best chance of the night rang off iron in the first period.
"I think that's playoff hockey," Montreal coach Jacques Martin said of his team's shot-blocking. "I think it's a commitment by the players. I think they know at this time of the year you've got to do everything in your power to win games. It means sometimes taking hits to make play, it means blocking shots, it means to be fully committed."
Game 7 did not go by without some controversy as well, as an apparent Alexander Ovechkin equalizer in the third period's first minute was washed out as referee Brad Watson ruled that Mike Knuble was in the crease. That non-tally wiped out the potential equalizer, and the judgment call loomed over the one-goal game.
"That's a violation that hasn't been called all year," Knuble said afterwards. "I felt all night that I wasn't a crease presence, as far as being in the blue paint, I was right on the edge where I should be, and we talked about it, the referee and I. ... You haven't seen it all year and now it comes out in Game 7."
After Montreal had jumped out to quick two-goal leads in Games 5 and 6, the first period of Game 7 was much more tentative, with the Caps getting some decent chances but unable to light the lamp -- and the Habs cashed in on a bad penalty taken by Green in the final minute.
Caps got two shots on in the first shift, with Ovechkin getting involved in a scrum early after a scoring threat.
The Capitals got their best chance of the period with around eight minutes left to play, as the struggling Semin redirected a Laich feed, but the puck hit the post.
Green gave the dangerous Montreal power-play as he was called for high-sticking with an unnecessary penalty with :41.2 left in the period, and the Habs took advantage, as Bergeron scored with just :29.1 left in the frame to give the Canadiens the early lead.
"It was not a good penalty," Boudreau said afterwards.
Montreal took the 1-0 edge into the locker room, with the Caps outshooting the Habs 11-8.
Gionta nearly made it 2-0 in the first minute of the second, but Capitals netminder Varlamov got enough of the puck to send it off the post.
Jeff Schultz then gave Montreal its second power-play with 1:05 gone, but the Caps were able to kill of the penalty to stay within one despite some good Montreal chances.
The Capitals got their first chance with the extra-man with 8:18 left in the second, as Tomas Plekanec was called for hauling down Green on a scoring chance. Washington couldn't get the equalizer, but got another chance with 5:39 left in the period as Josh Gorges put the Caps right back on the power-play.
John Carlson nearly put one in, but the league's best power-play fell to just 1-for-32 on the series with the failed attempt.
Green headed back to the box with 2:38 after a bad giveaway, giving the Habs a chance to really put the Capitals in a big hole before the second intermission, but the penalty-kill held, keeping it 1-0 with the Caps putting 13 shots on goal to Montreal's three.
Washington appeared to get on the board with just :24 gone in the first period when Ovechkin's shot beat Halak, but the goal was washed out as the referee ruled Knuble was in the crease during the play.
Facing elimination, the Caps continued to press Halak, and Montreal thought it had a 2-0 lead when the puck went in the net with 11:37 to play, but the chance was washed out when Maxim Lapierre was ruled to have interfered with Varlamov to keep it a one-goal game, but just for the time being.
The Caps had a chance just over two minutes later on a scramble in front, but Carlson's chance was deflected into the netting behind the glass.
Right after Ovechkin was denied by Halak on a good chance, the Canadiens took advantage of Green losing a race to the puck and Moore scored inside the post for the eventual series-winning tally.
Washington broke Halak's shutout bid with 2:16 to play as Laich poked in the net to put the Caps back within one. O'Byrne then was called for a high-sticking penalty with just 1:44 to play in regulation, and the Caps pulled Varlamov for a 6-on-4 advantage to try for the equalizer and force overtime.
But Washington couldn't convert, finishing the series with a 1-for-33 power-play performance and a rather stunned crowd who saw the Caps -- who had only lost five regulation games at Verizon Center all season long -- drop their second of the series at home to finish their season.
The Canadiens move on to face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round, while Washington faces a long offseason after seeing a commanding lead in the series evaporate.
After advancing to the second round for the first time in 11 years last season, the team took a major step backwards, became the first top seed in the NHL to lose a 3-1 series lead and fall in the series.
"If someone came to your work and stepped on your desk or punched you in the head, that's how I feel," Jason Chimera said in a subdued Caps locker room. "You come for a long playoff run, and it doesn't happen it's tough. Right now it's weird."
"It's not fun at all," Backstrom said. "We have been working hard, we thought, this season. Maybe we didn't work hard enough. We were scoring a thousand goals in the regular season and we can't even score in the playoffs. That's kind of not acceptable for our team and for us. Of course, I feel bad for the fans that have been supporting us this whole season. I guess that's hockey."