Following a centennial birthday celebration that saw them get swept out of the playoffs, the Montreal Canadiens were going through a complete overhaul.
Ownership was new, George Gillett having sold his share of the club to the Molson family. Behind the bench, Jacques Martin was brought in to replace Guy Carbonneau. The roster was turned over heavily: in came Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, Michael Cammalleri, Hal Gill, and Jaroslav Spacek. Out went Saku Koivu, Alex Kovalev, Alex Tanguay, and Mike Komisarek. General manager Bob Gainey wouldn’t be immune either, departing in February in favour of Pierre Gauthier.
The club struggled to tread water the entire season, only securing the eighth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference with a strong March and April performance. Their reward: the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals and captain Alex Ovechkin, fresh off his third consecutive 50-goal-season and hungry to exceed last season’s close defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
When the puck dropped at the Verizon Center on April 15, 2010, no one in the hockey world was expecting what would unfold over the next two weeks.
|Left Wing||Centre||Right Wing|
|Left Wing||Centre||Right Wing|
|13- Mike Cammalleri||14- Tomas Plekanec||46- Andrei Kostitsyn|
|57- Benoit Pouliot||91- Scott Gomez||21- Brian Gionta|
|32- Travis Moen||42- Dominic Moore||74- Sergei Kostitsyn|
|94- Tom Pyatt||40- Maxim Lapierre||52- Mathieu Darche|
|Left Defence||Right Defence|
|Left Defence||Right Defence|
|79- Andrei Markov||47- Marc-Andre Bergeron|
|44- Roman Hamrlik||6- Jaroslav Spacek|
|75- Hal Gill||26- Josh Gorges|
|41- Jaroslav Halak|
|31- Carey Price|
SCRATCHES: Glen Metropolit, Georges Laraque, Ryan O’Byrne, Ben Maxwell
|Left Wing||Centre||Right Wing|
|Left Wing||Centre||Right Wing|
|8- Alex Ovechkin||19- Nicklas Backstrom||22- Mike Knuble|
|21- Brooks Laich||14- Tomas Fleischmann||28- Alexander Semin|
|25- Jason Chimera||18- Eric Belanger||16- Eric Fehr|
|15- Boyd Gordon||39- David Steckel||10- Matt Bradley|
|Left Defence||Right Defence|
|Left Defence||Right Defence|
|55- Jeff Schultz||52- Mike Green|
|3- Tom Poti||74- John Carlson|
|26- Shaone Morrisonn||77- Joe Corvo|
|60- Jose Theodore|
|40- Semyon Varlamov|
SCRATCHES: John Erskine, Brendan Morrison, Milan Jurcina, Scott Walker, Quintin Laing, Tyler Sloan
Nathan Ni: Looking back—and it was a long time ago—I had no expectations. I think I was kind of happy because I was a big fan of Ovechkin (who wasn’t). At least the Habs could put up a good fight, Ovechkin would do Ovechkin things and be exciting, and well, it couldn’t be worse than being swept by the Bruins.
Jared Book: 2010, before it started, you felt something about this Canadiens team. It was a tough time. I personally was hopeful but with no expectations. The Capitals were really good. Hopefully they wouldn’t get swept like they were the year before.
They changed the entire core of the team over one summer. I still remember the Canadiens ad campaign where they introduced the players. I can’t find an image online but I am fairly certain it would have a picture of a player, and it said “I am Hal. We are Canadiens.” It was very fitting.
Thirty seconds in, Versus colour commentator Billy Jaffe describes the Habs as “not big up front, but decent size on the backside.”
NN: Phrasing, Billy.
JB: Before the game started, Versus sent their sideline reporter to talk to Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin said that the team, even though they were a veteran playoff team, had playoff nerves and was shaky. Words he would later say about Jaroslav Halak. It was a bit jarring watching that back coming from the captain of the President’s Trophy winners.
The first five minutes are, predictably, all Capitals. Marc-Andre Bergeron takes an early penalty that the Habs kill off, but Montreal won’t get a shot on net until six minutes have elapsed as Washington sends wave after wave at Jaroslav Halak and his defenders.
NN: Versus flashes Halak’s regular season statistics on the screen—26-13-5, 2.40 GAA, .924 save percentage (4th in the league), 5 shutouts—and I’m going “wait, what?” Why does it feel now that he was such a “out of nowhere” story?
Jaffe also tempts fate by talking about how Jose Theodore was pulled for Semyon Varlamov after only one game last playoffs. “It’ll be a longer leash this year.” Well, that was technically correct.
JB: One of the things I forget the most is that the Capitals started with Jose Theodore in goal. Five years earlier, when Bob Gainey drafted Carey Price, he was asked why when he already had Theodore and Mathieu Garon. Gainey presciently said that not only did they add Price but they had just signed another young goaltender they had drafted a few years earlier: That’s right, Halak.
Halak won the starting job over Price which is noteworthy in part because normally first-round picks don’t get sat for their seventh-round backups. You need to ride the hot hand, and ironically the Boston Bruins in 2011 sat Tuukka Rask, drafted in the same first round as Price, for Tim Thomas. It worked out OK for them, too.
The Capitals barrage continues with Roman Hamrlik and Marc-Andre Bergeron committing horrible turnovers that send Washington forwards in alone on Halak. This is sandwiched by Scott Gomez drawing a penalty and the Canadiens finally seeing some time in the offensive zone. The commentators note that Bergeron, with a penalty and a turnover so far, hasn’t had a great first ten minutes. “There was a decision made by Jacques Martin, do I play Marc-Andre Bergeron for the power play, or do I put big Ryan O’Byrne in?” says Jaffe.
NN: Hell of a decision. Wasn’t there some kid down in Hamilton who plays defence who had two points in two NHL games in February?
JB: Patience, Nathan.
With just under seven minutes left in the frame, Nicklas Backstrom takes a retaliation penalty after getting tangled up with Spacek in the Habs defensive zone. Michael Cammalleri shows why Kirk Muller was so highly regarded as a power play wizard, going bar-down to put the Canadiens up 1-0 against the run of play.
NN: There’s a lot to take in here. Nicklas Backstrom taking angry retaliation minors, Andrei Markov firing a pass down the royal road, it’s like some bizarre alternate universe. More seriously though, this goal changed the tenor of the game. Before, it felt like Washington’s breakthrough was inevitable. A bad penalty and some opportunism, and suddenly the Habs have the lead—and maybe a little momentum—on the road.
JB: When Cammalleri scored, I couldn’t take my eyes off the person who made that cross-ice pass. Andrei Markov was probably underrated, even by fans. That goal by Cammalleri actually broke a goal drought to close the regular season. He may get back on track.
Naturally, Benoit Pouliot takes a charging minor right after the ensuing faceoff. The Habs kill off yet another penalty though, as the league’s best power play continues to fire blanks.
NN: 2020-me is astounded by how little Ovechkin is engaged in this power play scheme. He’s rarely in his office, rarely moves down low, and it’s making the PP as a whole much easier to defend. The Habs are shadowing Ovechkin with a forward, and as long as Ovie stays near the blue line, that shadow can roughly stay within the box formation.
With five minutes left in the period, after some great work from the Capitals’ grinders, Joe Corvo sends a wrister through a screen and past Halak.
NN: The Cammalleri goal, while it didn’t shift the momentum, looks really big now because Jacques Martin’s Habs aren’t built for chasing.
JB: Just before Corvo’s goal, the announcers say that the Capitals are outshooting the Canadiens 16-6. Other than the power plays, it doesn’t feel like Washington is dominating though. They are simply the better team. Notably, the goal was scored with a lot of traffic in front.
Not much else happens for the rest of the period. The Caps can’t break down the Canadiens defense, while the Habs continue to have a hard time generating any zone presence. 1-1 heading into the intermission is about as good of a result as the Canadiens could have hoped for. The shots were 19-7 Washington.
The second period starts much better for the Canadiens and the game is even as both teams start to settle in. Given one team won the President’s Trophy and the other is the eight seed, that suits Montreal just fine.
JB: The announcers mention Jeff Schultz was +50 for the Capitals. I didn’t even know his first name when I first saw him on the roster.
Washington’s two best chances of the period come when Halak bobbles a Nicklas Backstrom shot that falls behind him and trickles just wide. David Steckel also has a chance, but misses the open rebound at the side of the net. In contrast to the choppy first period, the second is much more fluid with relatively few stoppages in play.
The Capitals go back to the power play as Montreal takes a too-many-men penalty midway through the period. Once again, the penalty kill steps up.
NN: There’s a moment during this power play where Mike Green gets the puck, and instead of setting up Ovechkin’s one-timer, he skates in and wrists it tamely off Halak’s blocker. I am reminded again that 2010 is a different universe.
After the penalty expires, Benoit Pouliot — who served the penalty — took a shot when in alone on Theodore. Andrei Kostitsyn fed Tomas Plekanec who had another chance and followed that one up with a third in close. Theodore kept the game tied.
JB: I believe that’s what they call foreshadowing.
NN: This sequence seemed to spark the Habs, as they definitely tilted the ice in their favour for the rest of the period.
Late in the period, Montreal’s fourth line draws a penalty with forechecking and puck possession against the wall. The power play has 19 seconds left on it when the Canadiens go into the locker room for the second intermission. After a tough first, Montreal outshot Washington 13-8 in the frame. Alex Ovechkin, by the way, has zero shots on goal through 40 minutes.
JB: One of the more underrated things about this Canadiens team is that there is no obvious weak line or pairing to exploit when they’re on the road. You may see weak links like Bergeron, or the Kostitsyn brothers but they’re insulated by Andrei Markov, or Tomas Plekanec, or Dominic Moore and Travis Moen. Even the fourth line has Lapierre, Darche, and Pyatt who are known for their defensive awareness. All that is surrounded by Jacques Martin’s system.
NN: It’s clear now that this is an actual game instead of a coronation. Even the commentators are noticing that the Caps aren’t playing their normal style.
After the short power play ends in the opening minute of the third, the Capitals take the lead. Mike Knuble jumps on a loose puck after a blocked shot, passes it back to Nicklas Backstrom and this time Halak can’t get a piece of it, and just 47 seconds into the third, Montreal trails for the first time. John Carlson gets an assist, just months after he scored the gold medal-winning goal at the World Juniors in overtime.
NN: Hope can be fleeting, sometimes. Now, would the Caps open it up and go for that third goal? Would they sit back and let the Habs build some offensive momentum?
A sign of things to come, Montreal doesn’t go away. They continue to push even though an early goal against to fall behind against the #1 seed is tough to bounce back from.
NN: In contrast to today’s random ups and downs, this is a testament to the mental fortitude of both the roster and the coaching staff.
Just under seven minutes after Backstrom gave Washington the lead, the Canadiens would tie it at 2-2, and it was a great play started and finished by Scott Gomez that did it.
JB: Scott Gomez was overpaid. Scott Gomez had a really long goalless drought. Those are two things held against him for the latter part of his Canadiens career until he was bought out. Gomez was also really good in 2010 and 2011, and a major part of the playoff success of both of those teams.
It was also a brilliant back pass by Gomez and one-touch pass by Pouliot to Gionta. On the first few viewings I didn’t even realize Pouliot touched the puck.
NN: The play starts with a bit of a rarity. Gomez, instead of the usual defender, takes the puck and builds up a head of steam. Suddenly, he splits the forecheckers and is attracting red shirts like Lionel Messi.
For all the flak that he got during his Montreal tenure for not putting the puck in the net, people forget just how good his passing and hockey sense was. Just watch how after he dishes to Pouliot, he sneaks behind all of the panicked Capitals and goes to the edge of the crease.
Immediately following the goal, Brooks Laich, Tomas Fleischmann, and Alex Semin had chances stopped by Halak. Right after that shift, Martin threw out Darche, Lapierre, and Pyatt who hemmed the Capitals in their own zone... for a bit, anyways. Eric Fehr and Nicklas Backstrom quickly went the other way for a chance.
NN: This is where Halak makes his first save that I would classify as “larcenous.” It won’t be his last.
Travis Moen takes a penalty that would not happen in today’s NHL. As John Carlson has to touch the puck for an icing, he unnecessarily hits him into the boards. The penalty killing was once again tremendous for Montreal.
After another icing call with 6:06 remaining, Montreal takes their timeout. The broadcast notes that Montreal has done a great job on Ovechkin who still has no shots on goal.
NN: Washington is starting to be more aggressive in their forechecking and it’s causing some problems for some of the slower Habs defencemen.
JB: The broadcast notes that Montreal had lost eight straight playoff games (Games 2-5 against Philadelphia in 2008, and a sweep against Boston in 2009). I must have blocked that out.
With just under three minutes to go, the Canadiens get caught and John Carlson finds himself on a two-on-one with Boyd Gordon. Marc-Andre Bergeron isn’t particularly graceful on the play, but he makes sure that there’s no tape-to-tape pass and then knocks Gordon to the ice as he’s trying to jam it by Halak’s pads.
NN: Bergeron had a rough start, but he might have saved the game on that sequence.
JB: Bergeron played one second less than Andrei Markov, 27:37 for the game, and the most even strength minutes of any Montreal player. There was no attempt to shelter the presumed weak link defensively, even on the road.
The two teams trade cautious rushes for the next two minutes or so, until Mike Green flips a rolling puck over the glass and out of play with 26.6 seconds left. The Habs don’t capitalize, and so take a minute-and-a-half into the overtime frame.
NN: This was a new rule at the time, and it had to be a lot of people’s worst nightmares to have this happen in a playoff game at a crucial time like this.
JB: Overtime on the Versus broadcast was sponsored by Las Vegas. Vegas, of course, was Washington’s opponent when they won the Stanley Cup. The good omen only took them eight years.
The Canadiens get a few decent chances on Theodore during the remainder of the power play, but don’t convert, and Mike Green breathes a sigh of relief.
JB: At the time, I’m sure it was very frustrating to see Montreal’s power play blow a huge opportunity. Watching it now, I’ve gotten quite used to it.
NN: On the plus side, the power play let the Habs get their feet wet in overtime without having to worry too much about defence.
The Canadiens aren’t backing down one bit, and the game turns into a bit of run-and-gun four/five minutes in. The rushes are hardly crisp though, both teams have difficulty making good passes and getting clear of defenders’ sticks.
NN: You’d think this would favour the Caps, but it actually benefits the Habs because they have a clear structure that they can adhere to in panic situations. The Caps, when things break down, are much more ragged.
JB: Jose Theodore has been much busier than Jaroslav Halak in overtime, even after the power play. Halak will have his turn, but for now, this was a team performance. Over five minutes into overtime, the shots were 6-0 Montreal.
After Andrei Kostitsyn has a good chance cutting in from the right side, Eric Fehr gets the Capitals’ first shot on goal at 14:42 of the period. Halak turns it into the corner with his right pad. “The Caps finally get a chance in the overtime” says Sam Rosen. Gionta, Pouliot, and Gomez then spend the next 40 seconds in the Washington zone, culminating in a Theodore save.
NN: That’s kind of the story of the whole game. The Caps are getting chances, but they’re not getting what Mike Babcock would later call “heavy shifts.” The Canadiens aren’t getting pinned in their own zone for multiple shifts, nor are they being forced to play with tired bodies on the ice.
JB: The Capitals are playing like a team that knows it is below expectations just being in overtime. Montreal is playing light. You can see it.
A minute later, the Capitals finally get into the Montreal zone, and Alex Ovechkin gets the puck in the slot. He fans and the Canadiens clear the zone. The puck comes right back and Ovechkin charges in on the left side for his patented pull-back wrister. Deflected into the stands. The Great 8, still registering a goose egg in the shots on goal department for the game, looks up at the arena roof in despair.
NN: Gap control on Ovechkin was the message during his early career, and watching now, it’s clear that current Ovechkin is much better at finding quiet ice than 2010 Ovechkin.
With 11-and-a-half minutes remaining in the period, Gomez sends a soft lob out of his own zone towards centre ice. Apparently he put some backspin on it, because it sits up perfectly for an onrushing Gionta. Gionta catches the Washington defence flat footed and is taken down by a diving Mike Green who missed the puck entirely.
No call. The surprise can be clearly heard in Jaffe’s voice.
With Gionta fishing himself out of Theodore’s net and chasing down his lost stick, the Capitals turn up ice. Eric Belanger puts it on net and a swarm of red tries to stuff it in to no avail. Sergei Kostitsyn then dipsy-doodles around +50 man Schultz like he’s not even there, but Theodore stops the backhander from in close. Gomez, retrieving the rebound, tries to send it back to the point, but Roman Hamrlik is mauled at the blueline and Nicklas Backstrom leads a Washington three-on-one... and completely botches it.
NN: After that minute of insanity, everyone just kind of took a breath and eased off the gas for the next five minutes. Maybe that lulled Washington into a false sense of security.
Naturally, the end came out of nothing. Spacek whacks a zone entry attempt off the boards and past Ovechkin and Backstrom. Plekanec takes a bouncing puck at the red line and takes it into the zone. As Cammalleri to his left cocks his stick (and his foot) for a pass that would never come, the Czech launches a half slapper from roughly the top of the circles that beats Theodore stick side.
Plekanec from Spacek. 6:41 of overtime. 3-2 Montreal. 1-0 series lead.
NN: This goal is Plekanec in a nutshell. Absolutely nothing fancy, but he gets the puck because he reads the bounce properly. He gets the zone because the defender Shaone Morrisonn thought Spacek’s clearance would hug the boards. He shoots it because Corvo is backing off and giving him time and space. He scores because he placed it perfectly, going left to right and off the post as Theodore moved in the opposite direction to track Plekanec’s body.
JB: I have nothing to add, except to say that Ovechkin played 26:26 and did not register a shot on goal. He did have five shots blocked and three more that missed the net. Surprisingly, the possession stats weren’t that bad, with Washington having an edge, but not an overwhelming one. Hal Gill had nine blocked shots.
NN: To the surprise of everyone, the Montreal Canadiens now had a lead in a series that many were expecting to end in a sweep for the Capitals. Moreover, it didn’t feel like they had stolen the game. Yes, they were outshot, but Halak didn’t have to make too many spectacular stops, and the Habs spent their fair share of time in the Capitals’ zone. Looking on it now, it was a solid road game against—on paper—a superior opponent. Don’t give them the win. Make them beat you.
JB: It’s funny. I remember exactly where I was when this game was played. It started at Boston Pizza where I wasn’t even focusing on the game. I remember getting home just in time to watch parts of overtime and seeing Plekanec’s winner. Much like the Canadiens, the longer the game went on the more I started to believe. Once Plekanec scored, you couldn’t help but wonder... Could this happen?