During the Capitals’ Stanley Cup run of 1998, former coach Ron Wilson, referring to a vulnerable but still dangerous opponent, told reporters: “Never take your foot off the poisonous snake.”
This year’s squad would have been wise to listen to the current Maple Leafs coach.
While history — which certainly won’t treat this year’s Caps very kindly after bowing out in the first round after holding a 3-1 lead over Montreal — will look back at Canadiens’ goaltender Jaroslav Halak’s performances in Game 6 and 7, or perhaps Montreal’s penalty-killing unit that held the league’s top-ranked power-play to just one goal in 33 tries, Washington really lost the series last Friday in Game 5.
The Canadiens arrived in the nation’s capital last Thursday reeling, having dropped a pair of home games and facing elimination at Verizon Center. After seeing backup netminder Carey Price struggle in replacing Halak late in Game 3 and Game 4, Montreal coach Jacques Martin put Halak back in net, even though he struggled late in Game 2 and was pulled in Game 3.
But, with a chance to put the Canadiens away for the summer and rest before the second round, the Capitals didn’t take their chance last Friday, which cost them dearly. The Canadiens scored two goals in the first 10 minutes of the now-pivotal contest and were able to hang on for a 2-1 win and cut the Caps’ lead to 3-2 in the series.
The performance in Game 5 left coach Bruce Boudreau fuming afterwards, saying they had several “passengers,” and then, armed with new life, the Habs took full advantage.
Heading back to Montreal, where the Caps had won Games 3 and 4, the Habs used the same formula as Game 5 — scoring two goals early and then relying on strong goaltending and defense — to force the deciding Game 7 in Washington Wednesday.
And, in the unpredictable winner-take-all world of Game 7, a Mike Green penalty, a controversial disallowed goal and a miscue in the third period ended Washington’s season in a 2-1 loss — just five days after the team had its first chance to advance to the second round.
There was a distinct shift in Game 5 of the series. Facing elimination, the Canadiens came to the rink armed with desperation, and as a result, they became very tough to beat.
The Capitals, after that point, didn’t match the intensity of the Canadiens, who scooped up loose pucks, blocked shots and made life miserable for their opponent.
An oversimplification would declare that Halak, who made several tremendous saves, won the series for Montreal, but the team that averaged nearly four goals a game in the regular season should have scored more than three in the team’s final three games.
The Canadiens’ penalty-killing was strong, holding a unit that was converting on a better than one-of-four with power plays sputter to convert just one-of-33 in the series, including a 6-on-4 chance with a chance to tie up Game 7. But the Caps showed little imagination with the extra-man, overpassing and holding the puck too long, and not getting Halak moving before firing on net.
While the Caps have shown some trouble putting away playoff opponents under Boudreau, unable to close out the Flyers in 2008, having to fight back from 3-1 down to eliminate the Rangers in 2009 and eventually dropping a 2-0 series lead to the Penguins before bowing out in Game 7, this year’s club had higher expectations with the stellar regular season. And they didn’t deliver.
This year’s playoff ousting is the most unexpected, and perhaps the most shocking in the team’s 35-year history. If the Caps take anything out of the painful experience, it should be listening to the former coach’s advice.