Up two-games-to-one heading into Wednesday night's Game 4 in Montreal, the Caps were either going to come back home with a commanding three-to-one series lead or preparing for a winner-take-all best-of-three. Semyon Varlamov made sure it would be the former.
The rookie netminder stopped 31 shots through two periods to keep the score level heading into the third, at which point his offense took over with goals from the two-time reigning MVP and the fourth line in rapid succession en route to a 6-3 win.
Ten more notes on the game:
- I could probably dedicate each of these ten bullets to Varlamov, but we'll stick with just this one. Varly was simply spectacular all night, never moreso than during a 20-shot onslaught in the second period that saw him make at least three dazzling glove saves. As cliche as "your goalie has to be your best penalty killer" might be, the young Russian proved it time and again before finally surrendering one when Brian Gionta deposited a big rebound off the end boards (with Mike Green a step late in reacting to it). Through two periods, the Caps were outshot 33-18, and Varlamov is the only reason they were tied at two apiece.
- Well, maybe not the only reason. With the Habs up 2-1 and the Caps on a late-second period power play, the Caps got caught with too many men on the ice (and this one wasn't close). Following a brief four-on-four, the Canadiens had a power-play to close out the period - a period they had dominated and one that a late goal would put the exclamation point upon. Enter Boyd Gordon and Mike Knuble. The duo that efforted to strike shorthanded for the first goal of Game 3 combined for another man-down tally when Knuble one-timed a beautiful saucer pass from Gordon past Carey Price with just six seconds left in the period. As loud as Centre Bell was during that stanza -and sure to be at the horn - it turned into Bibliotheque Bell awfully fast.
- Seriously, though, raise your hand if you thought the Caps - who scored four shorthanded goals all season - would have more shorties than power-play goals through four games and have the lead in the series.
- Enough talk about whether or not Alex Ovechkin shows up in the clutch. In this series, he now has two goals and three assists in the third periods alone. And his goal tonight? Lightning quick hands to catch, cradle and fire a shot, turning Hal Gill inside out along the way.
- The "Other" Alex, however, still hasn't been able to get on track and has now gone 11 playoff games without a goal. Reasonable minds can probably differ as to whether his assist on the Ovechkin goal was actually a nifty pass or a puck that was swept off his stick by a Hab right onto AO's tape, but the fact remains that Alex Semin needs to get on track. Then again, as streaky as he is, perhaps he's saving the goals for when the team needs them the most.
- The Caps continue to dominate the faceoff circle, winning 60% of the game's draws, with every pivot at 57% or better with the exception of Brendan Morrison (44%; and it was a lost defensive-zone draw by Morrison that led directly to Montreal's first goal). Winning eight of 11 shorthanded draws went a long way towards killing off three of four Canadien power plays.
- Speaking of those Montreal power plays, the four they had were for a defensive-zone trip (by Tomas Fleischmann to cap off one of the worst shifts in the history of earth), an offensive-zone high-stick, an after-the-whistle roughing, and the aforementioned too-many-men while on the power play. In other words, just one foul in an attempt to stop an offensive chance. Probably fair to say the Caps got away with a couple, but still good discipline, generally.
- Good job by Bruce Boudreau to hide Tyler Sloan as much as possible. The top three forwards he played against at even strength, by ice time? Maxim Lapierre, Dominic Moore and Travis Moen (and Moen abused Sloan on one rush, and the trio scored the Habs' final goal). That Gabby was able to play Sloan nearly 16 minutes on the road and have so little time against the top two lines was a good thing.
- Nicklas Backstrom had a goal, two assists, a plus-four rating and won 57% of his draws. Ho-hum.
- No Cap skater played more even strength minutes against Mike Cammalleri, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn than Tom Poti did... and Poti came out +3 on the night (with at least one assist... should probably be two) and wasn't on the ice for any of Montreal's goals. Stout.
With the Caps owning a 3-1 series lead, you'll doubtless hear in the days ahead about how some past Caps teams have struggled in the same spot. Needless to say, those teams are not this team. In fact, this team (or iterations awfully close to it) has been on the other end of a 3-1 lead twice and battled back to force a Game 7 twice (winning one), so they know it can be done. And they know it won't be done to them. Come Friday at Verizon Center, expect to see 18,377 red-rockin' fans, twenty elite athletes clad in that same color... and a killer instinct.
Win one game. Do it
sixteen thirteen times.