WASHINGTON - Alex Ovechkin removed his helmet during a couple of breaks between late-game shifts and wiped his scraggly, sweat-matted hair with a white towel.
All in all, the Montreal Canadiens made it a tough, exhausting night for Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals' captain and the NHL's two-time reigning MVP. The guy scored 50 goals this season, and has led the league in shots every season of his career, yet Montreal held him without a single attempt on net.
That strong defensive effort, and Tomas Plekanec's goal 13:19 into overtime, helped the eighth-seeded Canadiens beat Ovechkin's top-seeded Capitals 3-2 on Thursday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarter-final series, part of a trend of early surprises in the first two days of the playoffs.
"Right now I'm mad, and right now we're disappointed," Ovechkin said, "but tomorrow's a new day."
Actually, he'll have to wait until Saturday night to get things going in the right direction. That's when Game 2 will be played in Washington.
"We're going to watch the game and make some changes," the Russian left-winger said after his worst offensive performance in five seasons with the Capitals.
Only three times before in 417 regular-season and playoff games had Ovechkin failed to record an official shot, but at least he managed to produce an assist on each of those other occasions.
Not on this night, when he was shadowed by Canadiens defenceman Jaroslav Spacek and hounded constantly by others. Montreal blocked five shots by Ovechkin.
"We gave him no space, no time to shoot," said Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak, who made 45 saves. "Even when he had some chances, guys kept their sticks close to him, so he had no chance to shoot. We did a great job."
Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau's take was a tad different.
"He didn't play good," said Boudreau, who usually is pretty protective of his best player. "They gapped up real well on him, but I don't think Alex played very well."
Asked why, Boudreau replied: "I can't put my finger on it right now. ... They took him away pretty good, but I just didn't think he was very good tonight."
Ovechkin acknowledged Thursday morning he might be "a little bit nervous and a little bit shaky" in his third trip to the playoffs. Perhaps that mindset caused him and some teammates to expend too much energy in the first period, when the Capitals controlled play and outshot the Canadiens 19-7.
"There's no doubt: The first period, they dominated, and I thought we had to adjust, as far as moving the puck a lot more quicker," Montreal coach Jacques Martin said.
Montreal did not register an official shot on goal until nearly 7?? minutes were gone in the game. Its fourth shot, though, produced a power-play goal with 7:24 left in the first, when Mike Cammalleri took a cross-ice pass from Andrei Markov at the centre of the right circle and put a slap shot past Jose Theodore. It took less than three minutes for Washington to even things, with defenceman Joe Corvo scoring on a slap shot from the blue line, with plenty of screening help in front.
Washington went up 2-1 on Nicklas Backstrom's goal off Mike Knuble's nifty assist only 47 seconds into the third period, before Montreal tied it at 2 with about 12?? minutes left in regulation, when Scott Gomez beat defenceman Mike Green to Brian Gionta's pass at the far post and knocked the puck in.
It stayed that way until some sloppy play by the Capitals allowed Plekanec to quiet a loud, red-clad sellout crowd by getting the puck near centre ice and scoring on a drive from high in the slot that beat Theodore on the stick side.
Theodore and Plekanec got into a bit of a war of words from afar during the week, with Montreal's centre saying the Capitals "don't have a dominant goaltender" and "it's not as though we are facing" New Jersey's Martin Brodeur or Buffalo's Ryan Miller. Asked about those comments, Theodore ratcheted things up by replying with a smirk: "Tomas who? Jagr? Oh, Plekanec, OK. I thought you meant Jagr," a reference to Plekanec's Czech teammate at the Vancouver Olympics, Jaromir Jagr.
Adding to the fun, Plekanec's jersey number on the greaseboard in the visitors' locker-room Thursday was listed as Jagr's 68 - instead of Plekanec's 14.
Both Plekanec and Theodore sought to play down the significance of their trash-talking, but Cammalleri said, "There was a couple of jokes thrown at him after the game, I'm not going to lie to you."
With Ovechkin leading the way, and plenty of help from players such as Backstrom, Green and Alexander Semin, the Capitals won the Presidents' Trophy awarded to the team with the most standings points and topped the NHL in goals. The Canadiens, meanwhile, didn't clinch a playoff spot until Saturday and actually allowed more 5-on-5 goals than they scored.
Here's how Boudreau summed up what happened in Game 1: "Our best players weren't our best players tonight, and their best players were."