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Capitals vs. Canadiens: Braden Holtby hands Montreal its third straight shutout

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MONTREAL — A night after they strayed from their game plan, the Washington Capitals got back to the relentless play that has made them so successful over the past month. Twenty-four hours after being shut out for the 10th time this season, Washington took control of a contest from the opening faceoff and went on to hold the Montreal Canadiens without a goal.

Less than two minutes into Saturday night’s contest at Bell Centre, Marco Sturm scored his first goal as a Capital. Thanks largely to a constant forecheck, it proved to be the decisive tally in Washington’s 2-0 win, its 14th victory in the last 17 games. The Capitals haven’t lost consecutive outings since a three-game skid Feb. 8-14.

Rookie goaltender Braden Holtby finished with 18 saves for the second shutout of his NHL career, a showing that helped extend Montreal’s goal-scoring drought to 186 minutes 5 seconds. It marked the first time since October 1949 that the Canadiens have been shut out in three straight games.

Coming off a scoreless game of their own — a 2-0 loss to Ottawa on Friday — the Capitals (44-22-10, 98 points) knew how critical a strong start would be against the Canadiens (40-29-7, 87 points), who were trying to bust out of their own slump.

“We knew everything that’s transpired and stuff in the last three days [with Montreal not scoring]. We talked about it all day as a group,” Coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I think [Capitals players] were pretty determined. They weren’t happy with what happened last night. I think when Marco got that first goal it really took a load off our shoulders, because we didn’t score last game just as we’re hoping to keep them off the scoresheet as long as possible.”

Holtby’s 12th NHL start was the result of a bit of improvisation and necessity. The 21-year-old Saskatchewan native was recalled Saturday morning because Michal Neuvirth was sick and the Capitals didn’t want to risk over-exerting Semyon Varlamov, who made his first appearance in 33 days in Friday’s 2-0 loss to Ottawa.

Washington’s defense aided Holtby’s cause tremendously by limiting the Canadiens to 18 shots and fewer chances, but the young netminder didn’t falter when called upon. Holtby hasn’t lost in his last nine appearances with the Capitals and has stopped 152 of 158 shots in his last six games.

The Capitals didn’t waste any time in asserting themselves against the Canadiens, making sure goaltender Carey Price (31 saves) had plenty of work. Sturm scored on the first shift of the game for the top line, which on this night included the veteran winger along with Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin. A shot by Backstrom bounced out to Sturm, who potted the rebound 1 minute 24 seconds into the first period for a 1-0 lead.

The goal only made it easier for the Capitals to dictate play with stringent forechecking and timely dumps into the Montreal zone, forcing the Canadiens to wade into their defensive clutches.

The start “was huge,” said Backstrom, who finished with a plus-two rating in 21:25 of ice time, more than two minutes more than any other forward. “I think we came out with a lot more energy this game than against Ottawa — it felt good. All the guys were into it and we worked their D, we got the puck deep and we had a lot of scoring chances. That’s really good, I think.”

Washington dominated the first period and outshot Montreal, 12-3, but despite owning the game’s momentum and numerous power-play chances it struggled to build on the initial lead. The Capitals went 0 for 4 on man advantages, all of which came in the game’s first 30 minutes, leaving the door open for Montreal to make its exuberant crowd a factor once more.

The Canadiens’ sense of frustration at having not scored since March 20 was palpable and amplified by the periodic boos that came from the Montreal faithful. In the second period, though, the Canadiens started to create pressure. The offensive flurries seemed to spark Montreal, but the Capitals regained their composure after Boudreau called a timeout midway through the frame. Even with something of a stronger push, Montreal had only mustered 11 shots through 40 minutes against a smothering Washington defense.

In the third, Montreal’s desperation rose but its chances weren’t any more frequent. On a late power play, the Capitals’ penalty kill held Montreal to one shot to extinguish the threat before Semin scored with less than four minutes left to make it 2-0.

“They had a bit of a push in the second period. Other than that they didn’t get much,” Holtby said of Montreal’s pressure. “I don’t know what was going on with all that, but I think it was more a credit to us. We stuck to our system all game, we forechecked as best you can and I think that’s the main reason why they didn’t get many opportunities.”

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