MONTREAL — Buoyed by their success in recent weeks, the Washington Capitals looked forward to traveling to play the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night. After feasting on many of the lesser teams to propel themselves into playoff position, the Capitals were eager for a more telling gauge of their progress against an Eastern Conference power.
Washington got precisely the tight-checking, nail-biting challenge against one of the East’s elite teams that it hoped for — and came out on top.
Alex Ovechkin recorded his 26th goal of the season and backup goalie Michal Neuvirth anchored Washington with 27 saves in just his second start in 13 games. But it was Jack Hillen’s first goal as a Capital that stood as the game-winner as Washington beat the Canadiens, 3-2, for its ninth win in 11 games and first regulation victory against a team currently in playoff position.
With the win, Washington (44 points) remains a step ahead of the Winnipeg Jets, who are the only real competition for the Southeast Division title. The Capitals hold a two-point lead on Winnipeg, which defeated Buffalo, 4-1, on Tuesday, and still have one game in hand.
The Capitals also add a little more confidence to their coffers, dispatching a team that sits second in the East with 55 points.
“It’s biggest points for us right now. We beat team in front of us and right now we know we can play against good teams,” said Ovechkin, who remains tied with Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos for the league lead in goals scored. “I think all of us play well and it starts right away, just keep going and play our system. It gives us results.”
The Capitals jumped out to a fast start, spending the majority of the opening six minutes in the offensive zone, but despite outshooting Montreal, 9-0, there was little to show for it because Carey Price, who finished with 24 saves, was spectacular early on.
Montreal’s No. 1 netminder turned away a pair of close-range shots by Nicklas Backstrom two seconds apart less than two minutes into the contest with a left pad stop, thwarted another pair of looks by Eric Fehr and ensured that Washington would have little to show for its good start.
With 15:44 gone in the first, Montreal took a 1-0 lead when Brandon Prust fed the puck out in front with a nifty backhander to Lars Eller for a one-timer that beat Neuvirth glove-side. Despite what had been a sturdy opening frame, the Capitals went into the intermission down by one and with a full penalty kill looming at the start of the second after Ovechkin was whistled for slashing Brian Gionta at the end of the first. The message was simple: stay the course.
“It was just the kind of thing where you’ve got to get the kill and build off that — and keep playing the way we were playing,” Jay Beagle said. “We were down one but we were playing good, knew we had to stick to our system. I think this team, we’re a lot more resilient in this back stretch than we were in the first half of the year.”
The Canadiens buzzed on the power play, peppering Neuvirth with shots and collapsing around his net in search of second- and third-chance opportunities that might lead to another goal. Neuvirth remained his composed self, showcasing the economy of movement that is one of the trademarks to his game.
As Montreal swarmed, the Capitals’ defensemen stayed true to their assignments on the penalty kill and within the first two minutes of the frame four different blue-liners had stepped in front of a shot as they worked to fend off the barrage.
With the penalty killed, Washington swung the game in its favor and once again it was the top line that sparked the change.
John Carlson crossed the offensive blue line and made a nice backhand pass to Ovechkin, who was lurking near the right-side boards alone. As he skated toward center ice with the puck, Ovechkin threaded it through the skates of an oncoming Michael Ryder, making a fool of the veteran winger and creating space for a long-range snap shot that knuckled past Price to tie the game at 1, 7:50 into the middle period. The tally marked Ovechkin’s 16th goal and 22nd point in the past 13 games.
“Ovi did a good job of getting us started, getting a spark,” Fehr said. “Anyone scoring a goal would help, but especially Ovi. When he scores he gets real excited and the rest of the team feeds off it. I thought we did a great job after that, I thought we controlled the play the rest of the period.”
Less than two minutes later, the Capitals took their first lead when the puck bounced in their favor. Fehr tipped a shot from the point by Hillen but when the puck hit Price’s pads it caromed into the air. As Price searched for the puck he knocked it back over his head with his blocker. The puck fell on the other side, glanced off the stick of Montreal defenseman Andrei Markov and into the net for a 2-1 Washington lead.
Early in the third, Hillen added his first goal as a Capital to provide cushion in the form of a 3-1 lead. Backstrom won an offensive zone faceoff against Eller, sent the puck back to Marcus Johansson who tapped it back to the point.
From there, Hillen fired a shot that seemed to catch the Canadiens off guard. The puck made its way through traffic and may have redirected off a Montreal player in front before reaching the back of the net, but either way the Capitals held a two-goal advantage with less than 15 minutes remaining in regulation.
Eller scored on a deflection with 3:22 left in the game to cut the Capitals’ lead to one, but they were able to withstand one final Montreal push.
“If we get down a goal, the last couple games it hasn’t really affected us because we’ve been playing good hockey,” Hillen said. “That’s a sign of confidence, that’s a sign that we’re playing well for a good stretch here. When you get down a goal and you know you have a good system you just keep chipping away at it.”
Capitals note: Martin Erat and Joel Ward, who both recently suffered left leg injuries, made the trip but neither suited up. There is no timeline for their return but Erat skated lightly on Tuesday.