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Tracee Hamilton - Sports Columnist

Ovechkin and Varlamov lead Capitals in Montreal

The Capitals ride a prolific third period to a 6-3 victory and a commanding 3-games-to-1 lead over Montreal in their Eastern Conference playoff series.

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By Tracee Hamilton
Thursday, April 22, 2010

MONTREAL

The Canadiens were draped all over Alex Ovechkin on Wednesday night like a groupie at last call. Their fans booed him every time he touched the puck with that magic wand disguised as a stick. No matter. When Ovechkin drew back and fired a beauty of a shot past Carey Price midway through the third period, the Caps took a 3-2 lead. Game 4 was essentially over.

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But Ovechkin wasn't done. After the obligatory hugs, he skated to the opposite end of the ice to bump fists -- or gloves -- with goalie Semyon Varlamov. All night, pucks had been flying at his countryman like so much flak from a Spitfire, and he'd more than held his own. So what did Ovechkin say to the young Russian?

"It was emotion time for us," said Ovechkin, who had also scored in the first period. "I tell him thanks."

Varlamov stopped 36 of 39 shots, including 20 of 21 in the second period, so thanks were in order. His stellar play helped the Capitals to a 6-3 victory and a three-games-to-one lead in this best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.

While Varlamov was standing on his head in the second period, the Caps' offense was sputtering, managing just nine shots on goal. They were lucky to end the period in a 2-2 tie, thanks to a shorty by Mike Knuble that Ovechkin called "a pretty big goal."

Ovechkin's goal -- assisted by Alexander Semin for his first point of the postseason -- was his second of the game, and the sheer artistry of it is the sort that demoralizes goalies. It certainly had that effect on Price. Less than a minute later Jason Chimera scored. Then Knuble picked up his second goal of the night, an empty netter. Dominic Moore got one back for the Habs, but Nicklas Backstrom added an empty-netter of his own, with an assist from Ovechkin. Price got two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties during the onslaught.

Someone asked Ovechkin about the speed of the Caps in the period. "Just getting in shape," said the captain, dripping sweat from under the hard hat he'd received moments before in the locker room. The hat is given to the player who meant the most in that game, by the player who'd received it the game before. So Varlamov -- who has yet to lose in this building -- got the final assist of the night when he handed the chapeau to Ovechkin.

Price faced 20 shots in the period and allowed four goals. The Bell Centre crowd, which had demanded his presence Monday night and chanted his name Wednesday with every save, was no longer enamored. By the end, there were jeers from the few people still left in the building.

Montreal is home to a tough crowd. This might have been their last glimpse of their beloved Habs until September, but there was no lingering for fond au revoirs. Perhaps American fans are too sentimental; Habs fans practice tough l'amour.

These teams had never met in the playoffs before this series, but the matchup is working itself into a nice little rivalry. There was a little trash talk even before Game 1 when Tomas Plekanec either criticized Caps goalies Jos? Theodore and Varlamov -- or he didn't, depending on whom you ask.

Then the Habs stunned, or at least startled, the Caps by winning Game 1. Game 2 brought the benching of Theodore and a Tom Poti-Scott Gomez fight that helped propel the Caps to their overtime win. It was the Habs' turn to pull their goalie in Game 3, replacing Jaroslav Halak with Price as the Caps won easily, 5-1.

Throw in the taunting of former Hab Theodore, the palpable dislike of Ovechkin and Tuesday's controversy doubleheader -- comments by Mike Green that angered the Habs and Coach Jacques Martin's presence at the Caps' practice, which got Washington Coach Bruce Boudreau's attention -- and you've got a little "plain don't like each other" developing here. Not that there's anything wrong with it. Rivalries spice things up, and there's nowhere like the playoffs to develop them.

Sure enough, the first period was a little chippier than in previous games. Ovechkin scored with a little more than eight minutes gone in the period, a power-play goal assisted by Backstrom and Green that broke the Caps' five-game drought and 0-for-22 mark. They were practicing the power play when Martin was spotted watching practice Tuesday; apparently there was something top secret about Boudreau's plan. Just over a minute later, Michael Cammalleri evened things up and Bell Centre exploded.

In the second period, the Habs' barrage on Varlamov led to some unpleasantness around the net. Poti continued making friends, exchanging blows with Brian Gionta behind the net while John Carlson engaged in fisticuffs in front of it with Gomez, who got too close to Varlamov for the rookie's comfort.

Gionta got his back a few minutes later with a power-play goal to give the Habs a 2-1 lead. At that point Varlamov had faced 31 shots while the Caps had taken just 16.

The Caps were trying for their second power-play goal of the night when officials noticed they had six men on the ice. Perhaps that was Boudreau's secret plan, but probably not. Ovechkin was sent off for that one -- Boudreau's choice -- but no matter. With 6.3 seconds remaining, Boyd Gordon and Knuble sailed in on Price for the short-handed goal that was the beginning of the end for the Canadiens.


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