Capitals 5, Canadiens 0: Alex Ovechkin returns and the Caps find their offense

Graham Hughes/Associated Press - Washington’s Tom Wilson and Montreal’s Brandon Prust engage in a first-period scuffle Saturday night in Montreal.

MONTREAL — For 15 days, the Washington Capitals wondered where their offense went. They have rarely been a team to want for goals in recent years, yet during this stretch of January it seemed at times like they might never again find the back of the net.

But with Alex Ovechkin back in the lineup after sitting out the past two games with a groin injury, the Capitals rediscovered their scoring touch in a 5-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night.

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With contributions from both expected and completely unanticipated sources, ranging from Ovechkin to Jay Beagle and John Erskine, the Capitals racked up four goals in the first 10 minutes 31 seconds of the second period and chased Montreal goaltender Carey Price on their way to snapping a seven-game losing streak. The win also marked Braden Holtby’s second shutout of the season (21 saves) and his first triumph since Dec. 7 against Nashville.

“Big win, good win for boys and for Holtsy as well to bring confidence back,” Ovechkin said. “Sometimes we just have to break through. You can see who scores the goals, Beags, Ersk, those guys that don’t score a lot. It’s nice for them, it’s nice for us to have that kind of momentum on our side.”

The victory was just the fifth since Dec. 20 for the Capitals, who remain in 13th place in the Eastern Conference but, at least for a day, halted their slide. Washington is now one of five teams within two points of the final playoff spot in the crowded East.

Washington unearthed its slumbering scoring potential the old-fashioned way, by going to the net. All four of its goals came on plays that featured bodies crowding the crease or screening the opposing goaltender. It also didn’t hurt that the Capitals, having scored more than one goal in only one game during their skid, finally ran into an opponent struggling just as mightily to create offense as they were.

The Canadiens entered Saturday’s tilt having scored only one goal in each of their past two games and were mocked mercilessly from their home crowd as they struggled to muster shots. Meanwhile, the visitors set a tone in the first as they found their footing, and by the intermission Washington held a 12-3 lead in shots but with no results on the scoreboard.

“I was a little worried. We had a good first period, didn’t get anything out of it, had some good chances. I’m like, ‘Here we go again,’ ” Coach Adam Oates said. “But obviously power play got us going, and the second was a little fluky. It was our turn to get a break.”

The Capitals entered the second period with 1:47 on the power play but couldn’t even get set up in the zone until 13 seconds remained on the man-advantage. It turned out that was all the time they needed to cash in.

John Carlson put a shot on net, but it served as a pinball in front as both Joel Ward and Jason Chimera took swipes at the puck in the slot. Price made an initial save that sent it bouncing over toward the left post. Ovechkin managed to settle the puck and, from behind the goal line, bank it in off Price for a 1-0 lead with just one second remaining in the power play.

It was the Capitals’ first lead since Jan. 15 at Pittsburgh and brought out a confidence in the team that had been absent for weeks.

“Everybody in the locker room and on the bench stay positive and don’t stop playing,” Ovechkin said of the attitude playing with the lead. “Don’t give them any chance to take momentum back, and it’s working.”

Less than two minutes later, Washington scored again in a most unlikely fashion. In what wasn’t an actual shot on goal, rugged veteran defenseman Erskine sent the puck toward the net and it managed to pass through both the tangle between Brooks Laich and P.K. Subban in front and Price. The goal, at 3:05 of the second, was Erskine’s first since March 7, 2013 and gave the Capitals their first two-goal lead since Jan. 9.

Then it was Beagle’s turn to get in on the scoring party, with his first regular season goal since March 22, 2013. Mike Green fed a pass across the offensive zone to the left circle where rookie Tom Wilson immediately directed the puck toward Beagle, who was cutting in front of the net from behind the goal line. Beagle caught the pass with his skate, yet still managed to get off a backhander into what was an open cage with Price on the other side of the crease for a 3-0 lead with 6:21 gone in the second.

“From top to bottom everyone had a great game. We came out and played the style of hockey that we wanted to play,” Beagle said. “We played a full 60 minutes which was huge. You can’t have any lapses, and we were going a full 60. It was just great to get a win like that and get the monkey off our back.”

Carlson made it 4-0 just more than four minutes later when he put a long-range floater in on net that appeared to catch Price off guard. That was the end of the night for Price, who allowed four goals on the first 26 shots but didn’t receive much help from his teammates as the Canadiens had fired only three shots against Holtby up to that point.

In the third, Casey Wellman, playing in just his second NHL game of the season after being recalled Saturday afternoon from the AHL’s Hershey Bears with Mikhail Grabovski sidelined by a left leg injury, scored against Peter Budaj on the rush with an assist from Ovechkin to make it 5-0.

It was Wellman’s first NHL goal since Dec. 4, 2011, when he was a member of the Minnesota Wild, and perhaps a fitting final flourish for the Capitals who had celebrated each goal with the joy of a team that had never known offense.

“We played a very strong game,” Holtby said. “We didn’t just win, we deserved it from start to finish, and that’s the way we need to play every night if we want to get to where we want to go and that’s a Stanley Cup obviously. It’s a good game, and we know we can do it now. This is what we’ll base our efforts off of in the future.”

 
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