Why The Habs Won And The Capitals Lost

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"I saw clip of Halak holding bottle, and he look nervous." - Alex Ovechkin

It will take awhile to sink in perhaps, just how on Earth the Montreal Canadiens beat the favored Washington Capitals in seven games.

One thing is certain, no one will see Jaroslav Halak wearing a t-shirt saying "History Will Be Made I Made History".

The humble Halak, who's "another day at the office" performances apparently include 53 save robberies of the NHL's most devastating arsenal, epitomizes the current mindset of the team he stops pucks for.

Then again, for every man on this Canadiens club, perhaps it is easy to remain humble when winning like they have, drastically outplayed in several specific areas, but coming out ahead in the one or two that matter most.

It is also humbling when the players sitting next to one another, have been equally heroic in their own way, just another contributor on a team. On winning teams, players play for one another. They want to win as badly for themselves as they next guy, and they will manage to do whatever it takes to achieve that.

It's a lesson that has to be experienced to be learned.

The Washington Capitals are an impressive collection of talent, as their league leading totals attest. In fact, so good are they, that they have been able to skip a lesson or two and still excel, not unlike the brainy born kids who cut classes and still ace their grades.

Right now it is the Capitals who are humbled some, wondering exactly what went wrong.

It will take some soul searching, because in these playoffs they followed their winning recipe to a script, yet it failed to play out as it always has.

Washington dominated Montreal in more games than they won, but it is the Canadiens group and individual performances that are all the talk.

Yes, Halak shone in the series, but there are twenty or so reasons sitting beside him in dressing room stalls nightly that have as much claim in the group success as he has.

The NHL playoffs are a warrior's battle, and if one had a dollar for every worn out playoff cliche, they could personally buy out Georges Laraque's contract.

However, the one cliche to sum them all up is that the playoffs are a different season. That one never fails its initial author nor its parrots.

The Capitals loss will earn its particular microscope and post mortem almost immediately, and the first note sounded will be that they did not play terribly in the 2010 post season. As stated, they outplayed the Canadiens in one end of the rink, so badly in fact, that Halak's crease could be likened to an execution line. They persistently dented every Canadien between the wind up and the goal, and returned repeatedly with a zealots zeal.

The Capitals played to the manner in which they were designed to play, and for playoff success, added the likes of Eric Belanger, Jason Chimera, Scott Walker, Joe Corvo and Milan Jurcina along the way for added depth.

Still, there is nothing quite like experience, sometimes of the losing kind, to teach what winning is all about.

If they want a good hard look at what that means, they need to look no further than to the team that beat them.

The Canadiens have some similar talents to the Capitals, but cannot match their most potent offensive assets. In the series, as the motto goes, the Canadiens best players were their best players, as were those on the Washington side.

Yet, what separates the two clubs and results in why Montreal will play hockey on Friday in Pittsburgh are a set of intangibles that only the willing can learn.

Washington did not seem willing or ready to learn a different approach to winning. It is an approach that is all about the sacrificing of the individual identity for the sake of a team mandate.

Let's start with defenseman Mike Green of the Caps, an offensive talent and risk taker who is likely still reeling over his exclusion from the Canadian Olympic team in February.

What Green does wrong, he knows well. His job consists of performing well in both ends of the rink. He often thinks a play ahead of himself and finds trouble. The Canadiens knew this, but Green allowed them to exploit this facet, as he failed to buckle down.

Andrei Markov on the contrary, is a similar talent. In the games winding down the regular season, Markov was often guilty of trying to do too much for his team. He developed the reckless habit of ill advisingly pinching in the offensive zone, to create chances rather than take advantage of them, and it got him, and his partner on the blueline, into all kinds of trouble.

Against Washington, Markov, from lessons past, understood this could not work, and reeled his tendencies in, playing a game more atuned to the series at hand. Markov gave up few two on ones, and his sacrifices made a better defenseman out of whoever he was playing with.

Alex Ovechkin is not only the Capitals markee player, but an NHL superstar. His agenda consists of highlight reel goals the variety of such are simply quite stunning. There is constant pressure on Ovechkin to deliver his goods, a pressure he assuredly puts on himself.

Today, Ovechkin would likely trade a playoff drought for a Stanley Cup he badly wants.

The instances of Ovechkin being spotted at the blueline waiting for breakout passes while his mates were outmanned were many. Ovechkin tried desperately hard to hit the scoresheet on every shift, but he's now learning that scoring chances are borne of hard work in the playoffs and not hanging out waiting for others to accomplish it for him.

Ovechkin is strong as an ox, and his play with the puck is his metier. His play without the puck is where his mates need him most.

On appearances and statistically speaking, neither of Scott Gomez or Tomas Plekanec had the series that Ovechkin did, but they are on the winning side because they dedicated their efforts and often sacrificed their own offensive when it mattered to bottling up Ovie and his mates. The efforts of Gomez and Plekanec on highlight reels were outnumbered by Ovechkin's during the round, but their errors weren't.

A number of Canadiens forwards who's mandates involve pucks in nets, became dedicated members of the unit of five groupings that lead to an amazing numbers of blocked shots. I'll select Mike Cammalleri from a group that would also include Brian Gionta, Benoit Pouliot and Andrei Kostitsyn. During the series, all had opportunies to score goals, and several of those commenced from their own end, where they were helping mates out.

On Washington's side, players of a similar ilk, be it Fleischmann, Semin, Laich or Fehr, took cues it seemed, and followed their leader. There were gambles made, the latter two often being less guilty than the former. But for every time Cammalleri was seen deep with his defensemen, one could catch Semin waiting for a breakout pass or some other option that didn't deserve his commitment.

It could be summed up that individualists play for themsleves rather than for each other, but that is a sumation that is merely true only in certain cases and not across the board.

In his post game presser, Caps coach Bruce Boudreau noted and underlined a dressing room full of devastated players who truly battled as though they cared tremendously.

Cliche time - there is working hard, and then there is working badly. It all looks like work until it doesn't work out.

It's a team game, and that was how the Canadiens played. In five of the seven games, they earned or were given opportunity by Capitals errors to take the lead. They won four of those by buckling down and adhering to a system every player without fault bought into.

The selling of that system to players could not have been too difficult for coach Martin, considering the Capitals exploits.

The Washington system for beating Montreal consisted of doing what they had done all season long. It might just have disrespected, and disregarded, what the Canadiens could and would do.

In the playoffs, that's a grave error to make.

Coming into the round, the Canadiens had all the appearance of the vulnerable victim, inviting a kill. After two games played in Washington, that was hardly the case. The Capitals struggled desperately to win Game Two, but never seized the lesson they should have learned.

A pair of one sided wins at the Bell Centre, and they expected Montreal to roll over and die down three to one in games.

That did not materialize. The Canadiens checked their errors, Washington did not. The final three games went the Canadiens way because the Capitals failed to remember and retain a thing from Game's One and Two.

That is a blatant lack of respect, and an unspoken show of arrogance.

After Game Three, Alexander Ovechkin uttered the quote at the top of this page, trying psyche out a goalie that had gotten the best of him in international tourneys since 2003.

Ovie likely never considered the competive nature of Halak, that of which we all know of now.

The Capitals game, and its deployment is built on risk, risk and further risk.

The Canadiens in all that, as far as Washington was concerned, mattered little.

So the series story, as headlines go and medias pronounce, will give chunks of deserved credence to the exploits of Jaroslav Halak, who stopped every shot the Habs defense enabled him to see and another bunch he didn't. The top post thick letters will also delve into the fact that players donning the CH threw themselves at Capitals weaponry with the dedication of kamikazi's in the final three games.

Both angles will contain truths, but games are played on the ice, where things are said and done between foes that microphones and camera angles, interviews, player quotes and op-ed columns are not privy to.

It wasn't that the Canadiens blocked a million and one of a million shots fired or reduced the Capitals powerplay to rubbles, it was disrespect that cost the Capitals this series.

That assessment is hardly based on a single Ovechkin quote, but in how the Capitals sought to counter the Canadiens play. By all evidence, Washington worried not that the Habs would grab a lead. They worried little, by repeated errors, that Montreal would be able to maintain those leads.

Truth is, with Washington leading the series 3-1, superiority and arrogance took over, and it just may have primed all the Habs pride.

Montreal either cared or didn't, but they surely knew and understood that Washington were far from a perfect team. They had defeated them twice in the regular season to know that, so they plied a game plan that would leave those weaknesses, those holes, vulnerable.

Now if a sixteenth placed team in the playoffs can expose these holes in the Capitals game plan, then it only points to how drastically it needs to be addressed

It came down to respect. The Capitals gave all the ready and nice soundbites about respecting Montreal, but did not play to the required respect.

After the fourth game, the Caps played to pad their stats, thinking the series was bagged.

The team that respected the other team most, and played as a team, won.

A short note to readers and commenters, on both the Habs and Cap sides:

I like to, and enjoy, addressing as many comments and e-mails as I am capable of, regardless of the subject, the particular posting, or which side you are on. I look at it that way because I am a firm beliver in the hockey community as a whole. I get asked questions, and I enjoy answering as many as possible. Also, I put a whack of my own personal opinion into this work, because frankly, I'm not all that media savvy and it is the only way I know how to do what I do.

In saying all this, I just wished to point out that come playoff time, the demands outnumber my ability to keep up. This site at present is experiencing a huge tilt in readership, and that is nothing but pleasing to me. With that said, I must state that because I have a family and a "real job", and so do the other site contributors, we cannot be 24/7/365 on all things Habs.

In times like this, I truly wish we could serve demand better. One day, I'd like to find the perfect remedy and solution to that, so trust that such an endeavor is a constant work in progress.

I will be away from these pages for most of this day, returning come evening.

I think (know) EOTP readers are the greatest, so I just wanted to address that a bit more personally, as you do me, with all respect.

I'll try my best to catch up to everything upon my return from Kingston Thursday night.

Washington fans, I know the state you are in from having been there. This loss is frustrating and that is putting it lightly. Hang in there proudly, as the Capitals are learning lessons and experiencing setbacks that will eventually put the team over the top. For some serenity, look up the late seventies Islanders and early eighties Oilers teams for assurance. The Caps are progressing on track, that with all lessons properly learned, will lead them to a Cup.

Thanks for your comraderie during the series, and all the best next season.

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