By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 20, 2010; D01
MONTREAL -- After a shaky start to a postseason filled with such high expectations, the Washington Capitals finally resemble the high-octane top seed most predicted would cruise past the Montreal Canadiens with ease.
And they've got two unlikely catalysts to thank for the turnaround.
Boyd Gordon sparked a four-goal second period blitz with a short-handed tally, and rookie goalie Semyon Varlamov, in his 2010 playoff debut, made sure the Capitals held on for a thorough 5-1 victory at Bell Centre and gave Washington a two-games-to-one lead in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals while delivering a blow to the Canadiens' once soaring confidence.
Gordon, a penalty-killing specialist who was healthy scratch on Saturday and didn't find out he was playing until after the morning skate, scored his first career playoff goal (in 23 games) 1 minute 6 seconds into the second period to put the visitors ahead 1-0 -- and perhaps, turn the series' momentum in the Capitals' favor.
"I was thinking pass, but I didn't want to waste a chance or hit a stick and have it go in the corner," Gordon said. "It was pretty big. From there on, we kind of took it to them a little bit."
After Gordon's goal, Brooks Laich and Eric Fehr took turns beating Jaroslav Halak over the next 6:27. Fehr's goal, his second of the series, marked Washington's seventh on 27 shots dating to Game 2 on Halak, who was pulled one day after Alex Ovechkin told reporters Halak looked nervous, noting that he saw the goalie's hand tremble while taking a drink of water after a Capitals tally Saturday night.
Ovechkin welcomed Halak's replacement, Carey Price, to the playoffs about five minutes later. The two-time MVP banged in a centering pass from Nicklas Backstrom, and with the goal, signaled to the rest of the NHL that the regular season's best team was back.
"It feels good to come into a hostile environment like this and play the game we did," said Fehr, who has two goals in the series. "We played pretty simple, nothing fancy and we got the win."
Just as important as the momentum-turning victory was Varlamov's performance (26 saves).
The rookie made his first start of the playoffs one game after replaced José Theodore 7:58 into the first period of Game 2 and almost a year to the day that he took over for Theodore last spring. Varlamov wasn't spectacular in relief duty Saturday, but the Capitals rallied for an overtime victory and that was apparently good enough for General Manager George McPhee and the coaching staff, which, according to Boudreau, made the decision in a meeting Sunday.
Boudreau said several factors were taken into account, including Varlamov's sparkling stats here (he's now 3-0-0 in Montreal with a 1.63 goals against average). Another reason for the switch became apparent during pregame warmups: fans taunted Theodore with a chant of "Tay-oh!"
"That was crazy," Fehr said. "But we were able to quiet them down in the second period, which helped us for sure."
Boudreau's decision to turn to Varlamov, right away, proved to be the right one. Varlamov stopped all 10 shots he faced in a wide open but scoreless first period, including a save on a Benoit Pouliot one-timer from the top of the crease on a late power play.
He was really good early.
"He's a good goalie," Boudreau said. "He's prepared mentally. I figured he would be good."
Added Laich: "He's very composed, very calm. I don't think you ever see [Varlamov] get rattled in the net. Theo, unfortunately, takes a lot of the heat. So [Varlamov] doesn't have a lot to lose and he comes in [and] plays free."
Asked if Varlamov would be back in net Wednesday, Boudreau chuckled and said, "He's probably going to start, I would venture to guess."
Another player who also probably sewed up a spot in Wednesday's lineup? Gordon, who also won 13 of 15 faceoffs and broke up a prime scoring chance on the penalty kill in the third period with the Capitals ahead, 4-1.
But his goal was what he'll remember from Monday. He called it the biggest of his career.
On a two-on-one with perennial 20-goal scorer Mike Knuble, Gordon took the shot, crashed the net and jammed in his own rebound.
"The goal took the crowd out of it a little bit and it gave us life," Boudreau said.
As big as the win was, the Capitals still know it's not over. They're also still concerned about a power play that went 0 for 7 and is now in a season-long, 0-for-21 drought. At one point, Boudreau began moving Ovechkin all over the ice, from the point, to the sideboards to the front of the net -- all in an effort to get the unit going.
"We [stink] right now," Boudreau said. "It's the biggest . . . it's the worst stretch that we've gone through. I thought we had some really good looks and some really good chances. But none went in and then you get frustrated. I'm sure we'll get a goal on it -- maybe not this series, but eventually, next year or something."
Capitals note: Forwards David Steckel, Quintin Laing and Scott Walker and defensemen John Erskine and Tyler Sloan were healthy scratches.