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MONTREAL -- And so, a season of records and excellence and unparalleled expectations now comes down to a one-game, winner-take-all exercise in living up to the hype.
Even now, having watched the Caps' 4-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens in Monday's Game 6 with our own eyes, it is hard to fathom it has come to this.
The most dynamic team in years, a team that pretty much lapped the field offensively during the regular season and looked ready to take a step toward greatness, is now reduced to hoping it has 60 minutes of hockey in it that will avert months of questions and self-loathing.
|Jaroslav Halak made 53 saves to lead the Canadiens to a 4-1 win over the Capitals on Monday night.|
"I guess here we are. We're at a Game 7 and we're going to play it at home and we're going to have that same effort," Washington forward Mike Knuble said as the Capitals prepared to pack up and pass through the honking horns and celebrations outside the Bell Centre en route to the airport for what could be their last game of the season.
For the second game in a row, the Caps could not solve the suddenly very unshaky Jaroslav Halak, pelting him with 54 shots and scoring only late in the third period on an Eric Fehr deflection.
Remember when Alex Ovechkin was making sport of Halak for shaking while taking a drink from his water bottle? Seems like a long time ago now, doesn't it? Halak has now stopped 90 shots in the past two contests, both of which were elimination games for the Canadiens."Nothing to say. You can see how we play," said Ovechkin, who launched eight shots at Halak on Monday night. "I think we played great, we just didn't score. There's only one guy [that's keeping] them alive."
Washington coach Bruce Boudreau, who was so critical of his players after the 2-1 Game 5 loss in Washington, seemed a lot more Zen on Monday night. Perhaps he understands he will need his team to be in that good head space Wednesday.
"I thought we had a lot more traffic tonight than the other night," Boudreau said. "Sometimes goalies get in a zone where nothing is going to beat them, and he's in that zone. Everything he saw he was going to stop."
We're not going to deny that Halak was other-worldly Monday night. Take your pick of any of a dozen or so banner saves he made. Joe Corvo, Alexander Semin, Ovechkin, Brooks Laich and Mike Green all had great opportunities to turn this game around, to take back a series that has strangely gotten out of their control.
"We got great looks and we missed chances," Boudreau said. "But how much is him and how much is us missing? I think it's more him than us."
For the second straight game, the Habs took the early lead on a Mike Cammalleri goal. It was actually two Cammalleri goals by the 9:09 mark Monday night, for a 2-0 lead that was all the Habs would need.
But if there was ever a team that isn't daunted by a two-goal deficit, it's these Capitals. Or it used to be.
About four minutes after Cammalleri made it 2-0 on a shot netminder Semyon Varlamov seemed to misjudge, the Capitals had a two-man advantage for 1:15. For the NHL's most prolific team, that's a world of time; and yet, they couldn't capitalize. Their power play, also tops in the league during the regular season, is now a mystifying 1-for-30 in this series, a painful reminder that the regular season exists in a different dimension now.
So, the Capitals return home now to a fan base that has seen so much playoff carnage over the years and will begin to wonder if all those heady thoughts of knocking off Pittsburgh and winning a Cup were wildly inappropriate.
Think the Habs aren't loving that?
"It was a feel of, 'We're going to find a way to win,'" said Cammalleri, who leads the Habs with five goals in the series. "Usually when you get outshot that badly, it doesn't feel that way, but it did tonight.
"We've got to play one game in Washington and here we go. They're the team that is supposed to win and we're the underdog. We get to go and play a game in Washington and we're excited about it."
Is there any doubt which team is under the most pressure?
"They're supposed to win, right? Every one of you guys picked them to win," said Cammalleri. "I don't think they wanted to play a Game 7 when they were up three games to one. They can't be happy with that. They didn't want to come here and they didn't want to have to go back home. At the same time, if you ask them, they have all the confidence in the world they're going to prevail. It is what it is."
Wednesday's game will mark the fourth straight playoff series that has gone the distance for the Caps. Last postseason, the Capitals beat the New York Rangers in the first round in a seven-game set after trailing 3-1 at one point. In the second round, they were up 2-0 against Pittsburgh and lost Game 7 at home. This season, they were up 3-1 against Montreal and, for the second straight series, have shown a troubling ability to get the job done. All four Game 7s will have been played at Verizon Center, and the Caps are just 1-2.
All of which means what? If the Capitals can banish the thoughts of those previous disappointments, solve the stone wall that is Jaroslav Halak and resume their previous identity as a scoring machine, it will mean absolutely nothing.
"The key for us is we want to go with the same pressure that we had tonight and try to keep them on their heels," said Knuble, who was with the Flyers when they beat Washington in Game 7 in the first round in 2008. "Obviously, we want to convert a couple, but we're going to keep going with that same pressure.
"There can't be any frustration in our game. No matter what's happened with the power play, we did a lot of good things on it and it'll pay off and we all believe that. We keep getting pucks on net, it's going to pay off and we all believe that. And we know we've scored a lot of goals and we know how goals are scored."
We hearken back to a comment Boudreau made earlier in the series, though. When a goal scorer doesn't score, it is no different than a checker missing an assignment or a goalie not making a stop.
And the Caps have not gotten the job done and have left themselves no margin for error.
Someone asked Boudreau if he was any more ready for this Game 7 than the previous three. His answer seemed to belie the tension that will follow the Caps home and will be their constant companion until the puck drops Wednesday night.
"I don't know how to answer that. Am I any more ready? Frig, we're ready," Boudreau said. "We're going to be as ready. We've been through it. I mean, how do I answer it? Help me out here. How do you answer that question? What do you do to get more ready? You don't know."
Now, shockingly, after blowing a 3-1 series lead, no one really knows what to expect from a Capitals team that seemed to have all the answers just a few days ago.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.