WASHINGTON - Alex Ovechkin, coach Bruce Boudreau and the rest of the Presidents' Trophy-winning, high-scoring Washington Capitals were feeling pretty good about their chances in the first round of the playoffs after taking a 3-1 series lead against the Montreal Canadiens.
So much for that.
Thanks in large part to Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak and his shot-blocking teammates, Washington's season is over far sooner than expected.
"We all feel as low as we can possibly feel," Boudreau said, "and we'll meet in a day, and we'll discuss the should've-beens and could've-beens at that particular time."
Halak made 41 saves in his latest spectacular, acrobatic performance, the other Canadiens combined to stop a whopping 41 other shots before they reached him, and eighth-seeded Montreal held on to beat Washington 2-1 in Game 7 on Wednesday night for a third consecutive victory.
"Before the series started, no one gave us a chance to win, not even one game," said Halak, who stopped 131 of Washington's 134 shots in Games 5-7. "We proved (to) them they were wrong."
The Canadiens are the ninth No. 8 team to knock off a No. 1 in 32 matchups since the NHL went to its current playoff format in 1994 - and the first to come back to win after trailing 3-1 in the series.
All in all, it was a monumental collapse by Washington, which earned a third straight Southeast Division title, compiled the league's best record for the first time, led the NHL in goals - and appeared to have full control of this series.
One indication of what the Capitals were hoping for in 2010: Each home game against Montreal was preceded by a video display that included an image of the Stanley Cup and the words, "NOTHING ELSE MATTERS," while the Metallica song of that name blared.
"I thought we had a good chance to win the Stanley Cup this year," Boudreau said, "and I would have bet my house that they wouldn't have beaten us three games in a row and we would have only scored three goals in almost 140 shots."
Indeed, the Capitals were limited to one or zero goals only three times in their first 86 games this season, including the playoffs. And then Halak did it three times in a row.
He was yanked during Game 3 in favour of Carey Price, who also started Game 4. But Martin went back to Halak for Game 5 - a switch that worked out rather well. Halak made 37 saves in a 2-1 win in Game 5, 53 saves in a masterpiece of a 4-1 victory in Game 6, and then produced more of the same Wednesday.
"I'm in shock right now. I don't know what to say," said Ovechkin, the NHL's two-time MVP and a 50-goal scorer four of his five seasons in the league. "We know we can win, but we don't win. It's pretty hard."
Montreal defenceman Marc-Andre Bergeron scored a 4-on-3 goal in the last 30 seconds of the opening period after Norris Trophy finalist Mike Green was sent off for cross-checking. Dominic Moore made it 2-0 with 3?? minutes left, stealing the puck from Green before beating goalie Semyon Varlamov.
Brooks Laich cut Washington's deficit with 2:16 to go, and the Capitals then got one last power play a half-minute later, but couldn't connect. It was a fitting end to the series: Washington's league-leading power play - which converted 25 per cent of its chances in the regular season - went 1 for 33 against Montreal.
"Our best penalty-killer was our goaltender," Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said.
There was a moment - ever so fleeting - where the Capitals and their red-clad, towel-waving fans thought they had tied the game 1-1. Only 24 seconds into the third period, Ovechkin put the puck past Halak on a shot from the left circle, but the goal immediately was waved off by an official because Washington forward Mike Knuble was in the crease, backing into Halak.
"It's a pretty tough one to take," Boudreau said after watching replays. "I don't know how they could make the call."
He has coached in four NHL playoff series, and Ovechkin has played in four, and each went to a Game 7. They're 1-3 in those deciding contests.
"They threw everything they had at us," Montreal defenceman Josh Gorges said. "It was almost, at times, where we were just doing everything we could to survive. They played hard, they played well. They pushed us. If they weren't as good as they were, then maybe we wouldn't have been as good as we were. They pushed us to be better. We knew what we were up against."
Now Halak and the Canadiens take on Sidney Crosby and the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins in the second round, with Game 1 at Pittsburgh on Friday.
"If that goalie can play the same way as he played the last three games," Boudreau said, "anything can happen."
The fourth-seeded Penguins were the only higher-seeded team to win a first-round series in the Eastern Conference. Yes, that's right: All three division champions in the East are done already - Washington, New Jersey and Buffalo.
The Canadiens allowed more goals than they scored this season, finished with 33 fewer standings points than the Capitals, and qualified for the playoffs on the final weekend with the worst record of any of the 16 post-season teams.
But Halak was on their side.
"We're all kind of speechless right now," Capitals forward Matt Bradley said. "We have no one to blame but ourselves."
Later in the third period, Montreal's Maxim Lapierre slammed into Varlamov in the crease, forcing the goalie and the puck into the net. There was no goal - and, to Washington's frustration, no penalty, either.
Nothing, though, was as frustrating to Ovechkin & Co. as being unable to solve Halak over the final 180 minutes of a series the Capitals figured they should have won.
"I imagine it's tough for them. They had their eyes set on bigger things, I'm sure," said Montreal defenceman Hal Gill, credited with six of his club's blocked shots. "I think they thought we were kind of a bump in the road. That's hockey, that's playoffs. I think we played better as a team than they did."