MONTREAL – The Montreal Canadiens have forced a decisive Game 7 in their NHL playoff series with the favoured Washington Capitals, and they have goaltender Jaroslav Halak to thank.
The 24-year-old made 53 saves – a team record for a regulation time playoff game – as the Canadiens staved off elimination for a second game in a row with a 4-1 victory before a delirious Bell Centre crowd of 21,273 on Monday night.
The best-of-seven Eastern Conference series is tied 3-3 going into Game 7 Wednesday night in Washington.
“Obviously it’s great feeling, especially in the playoffs, winning a game like that,” said Halak, who wasn’t beaten until Eric Fehr tipped in a Mike Green pass on Washington’s 52nd shot of the game at 15:10 of the third period.
“No one even gave us a chance, but tonight, we stuck to the game plan, we played hard and it paid off at the end. It feels great, but there’s another game ahead of us and we have to get ready.”
Mike Cammalleri scored twice in the opening 9:09 of play to give him five goals for the series and Maxim Lapierre added a key third period tally for Montreal, which also got an empty net goal in the final minute from Tomas Plekanec.
The eighth-seeded Canadiens have now loaded pressure onto the first-place overall Capitals, who looked to be cruising to the second round of playoffs when they took a 3-1 series lead with a pair of one-sided wins in Montreal last week.
But Montreal battled back, relying mainly on Halak’s goaltending, timely scoring and superb penalty killing. They ground out a 2-1 win Friday night in Washington and tied it Monday with their first home win of the series.
Montreal killed off six Washington man advantages and have allowed the NHL’s top regular season power play only one goal on 30 chances in the series. Most the credit for that went to Halak.
“Huge saves. Big, big time saves,” said Montreal winger Brian Gionta. “We got two early goals, we wanted to get the lead, and then he shut the door. It was him from that point on. And it wasn’t just the amount of shots, he faced a lot of quality shots. He’s unbelievable.”
Halak set a personal season high for saves as the high-powered Capitals’ attack dominated territorial advantage but was foiled time and again by the unassuming goaltender from Slovakia. His 50th save was a dramatic glove grab on a shot by rookie John Carlsson during a Washington power play.
He made two huge saves early, stopping Alexander Semin from the slot and Brooks Laich on the rebound, and kept the key stops coming the rest of the way.
It left Capitals star Alex Ovechkin shaking his head.
“We make goalies feel unbelievable,” he said. “When we played Philadelphia (two years ago), Biron was good. (New York Ranger Henrik) Lundqvist was good last year. And this year we make Halak feel good.
“It’s disappointing, but we’ll find a way to break that and win. No panic. Nothing.”
The Canadiens ended a six-game home losing streak in playoff games over the last three seasons.
They were called three times for diving – Brian Gionta once and Lapierre twice. Lapierre declined to comment on the calls, which looked warranted.
It was also a first taste of NHL playoff action for defence prospect P.K. Subban, who was called up Monday from AHL Hamilton and picked up his career first playoff point on Cammalleri’s second goal.
“I saw Mike out there and got it to him and he put it on the net,” said Subban. “Like Don Cherry says, put the puck on net an and good things happen.”
When asked about making his first trip to Washington, Subban said “Who knows, maybe (U.S. President) Obama will show up at the game.”
Halak set the tone early, as he stopped 18 Washington shots in the first period alone, even though the Caps got no shots during a two-man advantage for 1:15.
The Canadiens cashed in on their first power play at 7:30 as Marc-Andre Bergeron’s shot was blocked and Cammalleri then picked the far post with a wrist shot.
Less than three minutes later, Plekanec won a face-off and Subban sent it to Cammalleri for a long shot that fooled Semyon Varlamov, who faced only 22 shots and was not sharp.
The Canadiens sat back in the second frame and were outshot 15-3, but Halak was brilliant again, particularly while killing off a Lapierre diving call for embellishing a hit from Green. He robbed Joe Corvo, who had 10 shots in the game, from alone in the slot with the glove, got lucky when Green hit a post, and then thwarted Ovechkin in alone.
In the third, Lapierre burst down the right wing and saw his blast go off Shaone Morrisonn’s stick and under the cross-bar at 4:17.
Lapierre was sent off again when he went heavily to the ice after he was brushed by Corvo at 6:32 – to a wall of booing from the fans. That soon turned to a standing ovation as Montreal killed the penalty, with Tomas Fleischmann blowing a perfect chance at an open net by shooting right at Halak.
At 15:10, Green sent a pass to the side of the net where Fehr pushed it into an open side before Plekanec ended it at 19:03.
The previous Montreal high for stops in a regulation time playoff game was Ken Dryden’s 47 in a 7-3 loss to Boston in 1971.
Notes – With Subban in the lineup, the Habs had seven defencemen and sat out Sergei Kostitsyn. Subban had 10:02 of ice time, mostly with Roman Hamrlik, and was plus-1. Jaroslav Spacek missed a third game with a virus. . . Washington sat out Brendan Morrison and brought back winger David Steckel, while Shaone Morrisonn returned from injury to take Tyler Sloan’s spot. . . The Caps did some line juggling, moving Eric Belanger onto Ovechkin’s unit and putting Nicklas Backstrom with Semin, who remains without a goal in the series.