By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 22, 2010; D01
MONTREAL -- The Alex Ovechkin-led Washington Capitals offense produced four goals in the third period Wednesday. But it was Semyon Varlamov's first-star-of-the-night effort in the second that pushed the Montreal Canadiens to the brink of playoff extinction.
Varlamov, still six days shy of his 22nd birthday, stopped 20 of 21 shots in the period, including two highlight-reel saves during a middle 20 minutes in which the Capitals were badly outplayed. Then Ovechkin and Jason Chimera scored on back-to-back shots only 52 seconds apart in the third period to break open a tie game and help the Capitals earn an eventual 6-3 victory and take a three-games-to-one lead in this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
"He was great," Coach Bruce Boudreau said of Varlamov. "They had so many quality chances in the second period that if he's not on top of his game, we're probably going [into the intermission down] 4-1."
Just as big as Varlamov's play in the second period was a goal scored by Mike Knuble -- the first of two goals on the night for the rugged winger and the Capitals' second short-handed tally in as many games -- with less than seven seconds remaining in the period. The goal sent the game into the third tied at 2 and appeared to break the spirit of the Canadiens.
"That was such a big goal," Boudreau said. "When you're getting outplayed as badly as we were getting outplayed and you end up going into the dressing room tied. It's a huge relief because you know you only have to play 20 good minutes of hockey to win a game you might not have deserved to win at all."
Those 20 minutes of good hockey began with Ovechkin scoring his second goal of the game with 8 minutes 51 seconds remaining and Chimera tapping in a Matt Bradley pass moments later to put the visitors ahead 4-2 and take the boisterous crowd out of it.
Knuble and Nicklas Backstrom added empty-net goals to cap the Capitals' third consecutive win after dropping the series opener. In the past three games, they've scored a whopping 17 goals.
"I've said this before: Great players make great plays and great times," Boudreau said. "That's what Alex and Nicky and Mike Knuble did. [Knuble] is really the unsung hero on that line. He's the glue that holds it together."
The Canadiens controlled the second period, outshooting the Capitals, 21-9. The number of shots allowed set a franchise playoff record and Washington appeared to be in jeopardy of blowing a big opportunity.
Varlamov, though, proved to be the equalizer, putting together one of the best 20-minute efforts by a Washington goalie all season. Brian Gionta scored a fluky goal after a hard rebound off the end boards, but Varlamov made sure the Canadiens didn't run away with the game.
"He makes some big saves and keep us in the game," said Ovechkin, who was awarded the hard hat. "It was our job to wait a moment and score when we have a shot. In the third period, we came out and play strong and win the game."
Varlamov's best saves were with his glove, first on Michael Cammalleri and then Tomas Plekanec late (short-handed, nonetheless) to keep the visitors within striking range.
"I can't blame our effort; we played well but it was a matter of being opportunistic and we weren't," Montreal Coach Jacques Martin said. "They have players like Ovechkin and Backstrom who are elite players and when you give them a chance, they'll capitalize."
Then, for the second straight game, Boyd Gordon and the maligned Capitals' penalty kill struck after they had been assessed a bench minor for too many men (an illegal advantage they enjoyed for about 10 seconds before the referees noticed.)
"We tried to get away with it," Boudreau joked.
One game after Gordon scored his first career playoff goal short-handed, this time he passed the puck to Knuble, who buried it behind Carey Price.
"We're not a team that generates a ton short-handed," Knuble said. "To go back to back, is huge. But it was more the timing of the goal."
Price finished with 32 saves and a pair of unsportsmanlike penalties assessed late in the third period after he lost his cool. Varlamov finished with 36 stops.
Knuble's critical short-handed goal wasn't the only reason Boudreau was pleased with his special teams. The Capitals also scored their first power-play goal of the series in the first period, ending the unit's futility. It had gone without a goal since Game No. 79, an unsightly 0-for-22 drought for the league's top regular season unit.
"The media likes to go the 'O-for' route," Boudreau cracked. "At least know we're 'One-for.' "
Now comes the Capitals' biggest challenge: closing out the series at home on Friday.
When Boudreau was asked after the game if he planned to mention to his players the importance of a short first-round series to a long playoff run, he said: "We're going to talk about that. That's one of the messages we want to give."
Then he caught himself.
"But the big message is that it's not over," he added. "We can't sit there and start looking at what's happening in other series."
Yet, that is.
Capitals notes: Alexander Semin had an assist, but has gone 11 straight playoff games without a goal. . . .
Shaone Morrisonn sat out with an injury. The defenseman missed the third period of Monday's game with an undisclosed ailment. Morrisonn was replaced by seldom-used Tyler Sloan, who made his playoff debut. . . .
Montreal was without injured defenseman Jaroslav Spacek.