Saturday April 24th, 2010

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Capitals are going to have to get back to fundamentals in their too-long-by-half first-round playoff series: shooting ... skating ... counting.

In a genuine Sesame Street moment, Semyon Varlamov, the talented Capitals goaltender, proved he could count all the way to seven, which isn't a good thing in hockey -- at least not since the days about a century ago when the sport played six skaters-a-side. On his way to the Washington bench with about 80 seconds remaining -- the Caps already had already an extra attacker on in search of a tying goal -- the sophomore goalie retreated to his net when he saw the puck turned over and heading towards his zone. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven Caps. The Cookie Monster would have been proud.

The too-many-men penalty, one of a glut in the 2010 playoffs, essentially nailed down a 2-1 victory for the Montreal Canadiens in Game 5 of their quarterfinal series.

Montreal still trails the series. But if the Canadiens somehow manage to pull it out -- and no No. 8 seed has beaten a No. 1 after losing three of the first four games since the NHL adopted the current playoff format -- Varlamov's too-man-men penalty will go down in Canadiens lore one step below the Boston Bruins' too-many-men call late in Game 7 of the 1979 Stanley Cup semifinals that, not to put too fine a point on it, allowed Montreal to win its fourth straight Stanley Cup that long-ago spring.

The coaches invariably take the blame for these sort of screw-ups -- Don Cherry took the heat in Boston even though it was the result of confusion between wingers Stan Jonathan and Don Marcotte -- and surely Bruce Boudreau will have to deflect some of the scrutiny. But this penalty was all on Varlamov, who suffered a brain cramp of the highest order.

So score one for the Canadiens and Jacques Martin, who had been losing the coaching battle in the series -- or at least the personality end of that particular behind-the-bench fray. His team still might not be able to outplay the NHL's most dynamic over the course of seven games, but the Capitals would have swept if Martin had to engage in a public-speaking throw-down with Boudreau. Boudreau earned his nickname, Gabby, because of his loquaciousness if not his elegance, but Martin is sparing with his words. He doles them out meticulously, like a nutritiously conscious father telling his children they can have one cookie -- I said just one! -- after dinner.

But, despite the howls in Montreal about his coaching style -- the radio chat shows have been absolutely pillorying him -- he is not exactly a neophyte in the business. Game 5 was his 90th in the playoffs. While the oops nature of hockey can be beyond the game-planning of any coach, credit Martin with making a superb line adjustment.

Instead of the floating Benoit Pouliot on left wing on Scott Gomez's line, Travis Moen moved up from his normal checking role. The move seemed counterintuitive. Moen had not scored in his past 50 games, including playoffs and regular season. While he had shown a tantalizing dash of offense in 2007 on the Stanley Cup-winning Ducks with seven goals in 21 playoff games -- Moen played with grinders Sami Pahlsson and Rob Niedermayer on one of the best shutdown lines of the post-lockout era -- he was given a promotion to up the ante on the forecheck and create space for Gomez and Brian Gionta.

After Mike Cammalleri scored 90 seconds into the game on a nifty backhand pass from defenseman Andrei Markov, Moen gave Montreal a 2-0 lead seven minutes in with a backhander from the slot, a smooth finish off a nifty cycle that involved his two new, skilled linemates. And with fewer than four minutes remaining in the period, a driving Moen was pulled down on his way to the net by Capitals defenseman Mike Green, earning a power play. Moen's 5:27 were about the most effective spent in any one period by any Montreal depth forward this season.

Washington, however, has a better-known weapon, Alex Ovechkin, who didn't have a shot on goal in the first game of series, but who has done nothing but hammer pucks at the net in the ensuing four. Ovechkin, who now has scored in four straight, brought the Capitals within one goal four minutes into the second period, not with a dazzling move or a wicked wrister but with old-fashioned gumption. The revelatory rookie, John Carlson, who started the series on the Capitals third defense pair but who has been handed increasing minutes, managed two shots from the point during one sequence. On the second shot, big-bodied Mike Knuble crashed the net, proving too much for the Canadiens defense to handle. Ovechkin, lurking a few feet behind, pounced and shoveled the puck by goalie Jaroslav Halak, his fifth of the series.

Halak, however, was bulletproof in the third period during a power play, making a superb blocker save on the snake-bitten Alexander Semin, who was alone in the slot, and then sliding across to foil Tomas Fleischmann on a backdoor pass from Nicklas Backstrom. This was a rebound game for Halak, benched for Game 4 but who regained the net after Carey Price lost the match and his composure with two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in the third period. The Canadiens, to borrow a phrase now used about Varlamov, were counting on their goalie Friday night.

Maybe six weeks from now when the Capitals have won the Cup, they will look back at Varlamov's gaffe and have a good chuckle. Maybe they will chip in and buy him an abacus and give it to him at the after-season party. All champions must face some adversity; the ones that win the Stanley Cup teeter but never topple. You can count on one hand the ... ah, never mind.

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