By Michael Farber
April 21, 2010

MONTREAL -- The Stanley Cup used to be like a plague of locusts in Montreal. You could count on having one at least every seven years. Let's see, 1946, 1953, 1960 ... 1979, 1986, 1993 -- well, you do the math. After that last Cup in '93, thanks to goalie PatrickRoy's 10 straight overtime wins, the citizens of this hockey-obsessed city had to content themselves knowing they had won a Cup at least once every decade since the 1930s. That streak ended ignominiously, in a first-round sweep, last spring.

Now a new decade has begun, and the Canadiens are no closer to what they claim is their birthright. While the other two dynasties of the old-guy trinity, the New York Yankees and Boston Celtics, oblige us with championships often enough to echo their golden ages and burnish their reputations, Montreal has settled into a rut that is not even close to being championship-worthy.

The Canadiens now cling to the 2010 playoffs by their fingertips, trailing three games to one against the dynamic Washington Capitals, who are an unlikely candidate to cough up the next three matches of the series -- two of them at home. Although they were hardly convincing, especially in a second period when Montreal whipped 21 shots at goalie Semyon Varlamov, the Capitals won 6-3, emptying the Bell Centre with five minutes to play.

For Washington, that made it a scary 17 goals in three games. Alex Ovechkin had two -- he has four in the series, the same total as Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby against Ottawa but with little of Crosby's brio -- and the Capitals scored yet another short-handed goal. And for the second time in two home games, a Canadiens player took an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Actually two. The perpetrator was one and the same, goalie Carey Price, who was getting his first start of the playoffs. He fired the puck into a group of celebrating Capitals after JasonChimera's goal with 7:59 left, only 52 seconds after Ovechkin had scored to snap a 2-2 tie. The second penalty was for a slash to the back of NicklasBackstrom's legs with 11 seconds left, which was curious because the goalie was on the bench at the time.

Price called the first lapse "frustration. Not a good move, but, you know, let them know that you're there."

Apparently Price has watched Slap Shot once two often.

Next game, somebody better check him for foil. Mike Cammalleri, who scored the first Montreal goal, was harsher in his assessment of the penalties. Said the Canadiens winger: "Maybe that shows a little bit of (the) immaturity of this team. We've got to grow up a little bit. It" -- taking unsportsmanlike conducts -- "is not okay."

Neither is squandering a match, the second loss in the series that qualifies as a definite coulda and maybe a shoulda for Montreal. The Canadiens had taken a 2-1 lead on a late second-period power play, were doubling the Capitals in shots and forcing Varlamov to snatch pucks out of the air like a magician at a kid's birthday party.

Washington coach Bruce Boudreau went into what some people in his city call the nuclear option: for one shift he moved Alexander Semin, whose sling-style shot is perhaps the toughest to read in the NHL, to right wing on the top line with Backstrom and the inimitable Ovechkin. Hal Gill took a holding penalty on Ovechkin, but the Capitals then demonstrated why they had the top-ranked power play in the NHL during the season. They use six men. Indeed there was an additional Capitals player on the ice for maybe 10 or 12 one-Mississippis, a case of miscommunication between Semin and Eric Fehr.

But the Canadiens, who had the NHL's second-best power play, couldn't put their foot down with the man-advantage. Indeed in the final seconds, Capitals defenseman Tom Poti tried to clear the puck out of the zone, but it ticked off RomanHamrlik's stick and went to Boyd Gordon, who found an empty freeway lane down the left wing. He broke out two-on-one with Mike Knuble against the Canadiens' Josh Gorges, who took away neither the pass nor the shot. Knuble slid the puck past Price with 6.3 seconds left in the period, the kind of shorty that is a brutal kick in the shorts for a team that knew Game 4 represented its best if not last chance against the Capitals.

"Varly was great," Boudreau said. "They had so many quality chances in that period. If he weren't on top of his game, it could have been 4-1. When you get outplayed as bad as we were, when you go into your dressing room after that goal, it's a great relief to know you have to play only a good 20 minutes. For those 20, they blitzed us. Their forwards have the speed to do it. But if we could muster up a great period ..."

And so they did, with Semin outworking Scott Gomez for a puck to start a rush that led to Ovechkin's second goal. Then came the deluge. Price, who had not won in 50 days, did little to earn the net for Game 5 on Friday. And despite the hot air that occasionally emanates about a supposedly maturing 22-year-old netminder, he still has yet to prove he deserves to sit at the grown-ups' table for this franchise.

"I thought this was a game we could have won," Price said. "We played very well tonight. I thought we carried the play for the most part. We were that close."

Now Montreal is hopelessly distant. Again.

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