WASHINGTON -- If the NHL gave out a Conn Smythe Trophy after the first round of the playoffs, there's no doubt Commissioner Gary Bettman would've handed the award to Jaroslav Halak on the Verizon Center ice on Wednesday night.
The 24-year-old goaltender, who at times this season was battling teammate Carey Price for playing time, was the biggest reason why the Montreal Canadiens became the first No. 8 seed in NHL history to rally from a 3-1 series deficit against a No. 1 seed and eliminate the Washington Capitals.
He earned all four Montreal victories in their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series, but his performance over the final three games against the Caps are the stuff of which legends are made.
Halak stopped 131 of 134 shots, including 41 of 42 in Montreal's 2-1 victory in Game 7. Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin launched 24 shots on Halak in Games 5-7, and only one found its way into the net.
Sometimes it's a stretch to say one person was the reason a team won a game or a playoff series, but it might never be more true than when discussing Halak.
"He was huge. He played unbelievable for us," said Canadiens forward Glen Metropolit. "That's the difference. In the playoffs you need your goalie to be your No. 1 star, and that's what he was.
"He was in the zone, the last two games. What can I say? You guys all saw it. It's great having a goalie like that you can trust to make the big save."
Halak allowed one goal in each of the last three games of the series. He stopped 37 shots in Game 5, then made that look pedestrian by making 53 saves in Game 6. He put the cherry on top with 41 saves in the road clincher.
After Marc-Andre Bergeron's power-play goal with 30 seconds remaining in the first period put the Canadiens up 1-0, Halak slammed the door for the next 38 minutes. Dominic Moore made it 2-0 with 3:36 remaining in the game before the Capitals' Brooks Laich finally solved Halak with 2:16 left.
But Halak made stops on Jason Chimera, Alexander Semin and Mike Green to close out the win. The Capitals were left to shake their heads and begrudgingly tip their caps to the man who basically won the series single-handedly for the Canadiens.
"One thing we did to make it a little easy is we didn't have a lot of traffic," said Caps playmaker Nicklas Backstrom, who failed to register a point in the final three games of the series. "In the third game we played good on him and we had traffic in front of him and he didn't see the puck. It's hard, but he was good, too. There's nothing to say about that. he made some unbelievable saves and you have to give credit to him, too.
Ovechkin, who had a goal waved off early in the third period Wednesday that would have tied the game 1-1, simply stated the obvious.
"I think he played great," Ovi said. "You know, I don't have words to say something on Halak. I think everybody is disappointed."
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