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For the Canadiens, Another One for the History Books

Apr 28, 2010 – 11:09 PM
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Christopher Botta

Christopher Botta %BloggerTitle%

WASHINGTON -- The legendary Montreal Canadiens, one of the most storied and successful franchises in the sporting world, have become the little team that could. They're also an easy bunch to root for, unless you're in Boston, Toronto or Pittsburgh (their next opponent). And now Washington, too.

The Canadiens' upset of Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals is one of the most stunning in recent memory. With a 2-1 win on Wednesday, Montreal became the first team since the latest playoff format was established in 1994 to overcome a 3-1 series deficit and beat a No. 1 seed.

"That's hockey," said defenseman Hal Gill, who won a Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh a year ago and on Friday meets the Penguins in Game 1 of the second round. "That's the playoffs. Nobody took us for real. But at the end, the Capitals took us for real. They didn't have a choice."

Thanks to the splendid goaltending of Jaroslav Halak in the last three games, they didn't have a chance.

Who saw this coming? Besides, as they say in hockey, the "boys in the room," no one.

Canadiens win series, 4-3
Canadiens 2, Capitals 1: Recap | Box Score | Series Page

"A complete team effort -- guys sacrificing, guys playing for each other -- can go a long way," said right wing Brian Gionta. "Even if nobody believed in us, we did."

Maybe Montreal wasn't dysfunctional this season, but they were not the very model of an iconic major league sports team. While celebrating their centennial with an onslaught of lavish pre-game ceremonies that would make the Yankees blush, the current Canadiens squad was embarrassingly ordinary during the regular season. Then there was the out-of-the-ordinary.

The franchise with a Hall of Fame honor roll of captains who "carried the torch" went without a captain this season.

"We won where it mattered. On the scoreboard. Four times."
-- Mike Cammalleri
The Canadiens' three big and expensive offseason acquisitions at forward -- Scott Gomez, Gionta and Michael Cammalleri -- only average 5-feet-9 when measured by the trainers in Montreal. Ten players from last year's roster were bid adieu.

Carey Price, prematurely christened as the latest in a long line of great Canadiens goaltenders, was supplanted by Halak, a Slovakian unburdened by the weight of Canada's expectations. The goaltending controversy never subsided, even as Halak clearly out-played Price.

Ownership changed, beloved captain Saku Koivu was let go and -- most bewildering of all -- general manager Bob Gainey quit before the all-star break and hung around as a consultant.

Then the postseason started, and none of it mattered.

This is one of the beautiful things about Stanley Cup playoff hockey. Everybody has a chance in the spring. The Miami Heat had no shot of taking four-of-seven from the Celtics, the Orlando Magic humored the Charlotte Bobcats while sweeping them. In the NHL, the eight seed can beat No. 1. A 32-point spread in the six-month regular season? Wiped away in the span of two weeks.

A 42-16 shots on goal differential in Game 7 is a mere flesh wound. Especially when the Canadiens blocked an additional 41.

"We won where it mattered," said Cammalleri. "On the scoreboard. Four times."

More Andy Sutton-proclaimed experts picked the Canadiens to be swept (about 50 percent) than win the series (0 percent). Nobody predicted the Capitals crashing under the weight of expectations. After all, there isn't a more pressurized atmosphere than playing hockey in Montreal.

Washington's fold will be discussed for weeks. Montreal's role should not be dismissed. Halak deserves all the nominations for sainthood he'll receive in Quebec, but the Canadiens created this miracle as a team.

Ovechkin may have been credited with 10 of his team's 42 shots, but the majority were harmless and a few from inside the blueline appeared out of frustration. Critics will say Washington was 1-for-34 on the power play in the series. Halak -- and Gill, Josh Gorges, Gomez, Gionta, Tom Pyatt and the rest -- killed 33 of 34.

Halak stole Game 6 in Montreal on Monday, but early on you could tell the Canadiens had a game plan to keep the High Flying Capitals away from the net and their fans in the Verizon seats. Four minutes in, Gill blocked an Ovechkin shot just outside the faceoff circles. On the next shift, Roman Hamrlik got his stick on a slapper from the goal-less Alexander Semin. Gorges went to his knee to break up a 3-on-2 rush. When Capitals speedster Jason Chimera flew down the left wing, Ryan O'Byrne crushed him with a body check. An attempted wrap-around by Boyd Gordon was snuffed out by Andrei Markov.

By the final minutes of the second period, the Canadiens had turned the home crowd's hope-filled roars of "Let's Go Caps" into something that sounded more like an angry demand.

"We really frustrated them," said Halak, who earlier in the series was teased by Ovechkin, who said he could see the goalie's hand shaking when he drank out of his water bottle. "This feels good. I'm really proud of this team."

A first-round victory -- no matter how monumental the upset -- can never compare to a Stanley Cup. But Halak and his teammates have every right to enjoy this one for 24 hours. They are the pride of Montreal.
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