At some point, problems that pop up on a nightly basis are no longer simply mistakes in need of correction but traits that have come to define a team. Twenty-six games into the season, the Washington Capitals have established themselves as a group that will sleepwalk through the first period with regularity and often give up a quick goal after scoring themselves.
But while both elements played a role Friday night, Washington managed to overcome its flaws and capture a 3-2 shootout win against the Montreal Canadiens at Verizon Center to snap a four-game losing streak.
Mikhail Grabovski scored a tying goal with 5 minutes 32 seconds left in regulation and went on to record the decisive tally in the tiebreak session to secure two points, but it took until his third-period goal for the Capitals to fully negate the damage done by their familiar missteps. Regardless of the method, the players were glad to have finally achieved the desired result.
“It’s huge for us. Maybe it was not our best game, but we spend lots of time in the offensive zone,” said Alex Ovechkin, who was held off the scoresheet but recorded one of three goals in the shootout. “Of course we make a couple mistakes, but right now it’s two points, and we’ll take it.”
To reach that point, though, the Capitals first slogged through another questionable start. Not even the benefit of extended power-play time midway through the first period could help the Capitals create any significant pressure. They played a consecutive 3:47 on the man advantage with 13 seconds of a five-on-three in that span, but they failed to record a single shot on goal.
To have a true idea of how hard-pressed Washington was to direct a shot on Peter Budaj, though, consider that the home team mustered only four shots on goal in the opening period, including none in the final 15:40.
Meanwhile, Montreal took advantage. Daniel Briere gave the Canadiens a 1-0 lead at 15:20 when he skated past rookie defenseman Alex Urbom, wrapped around the left post and knocked his own rebound between Braden Holtby’s skates.
Holtby finished with 35 saves and kept the game close with several quality stops even though he was not originally supposed to start Friday night. Michal Neuvirth was scheduled to face Montreal but suffered an apparent injury to his right leg when he stepped on a puck in warmups, prompting the Capitals to turn to Holtby.
“He played great. That’s why we talk all the time about being pros because anything can happen,” Coach Adam Oates said. “Neuvy, five seconds into warmups, he’s out, and that’s why you prepare yourself and you’re ready to play.”
At the end of the first period, Holtby’s teammates knew they had to provide more support if they were going to find a way out of this slump.
Oates “didn’t really say anything to us [during the intermission]. I think every guy in the room knew what happened out there,” Eric Fehr said. “It was embarrassing the way they took it to us, and we had to change a few things, and I thought we responded pretty well.”
Washington showed more jump in the second period but would exit the frame the same way they entered it, trailing by one after giving up yet another quick response goal.
Fehr tied the contest 5:17 into the middle period when he was the beneficiary of Grabovski’s savvy decision to disrupt Budaj (24 saves) behind the net as he tried to play the puck. Grabovski threw a pass out in front where Fehr, trailing on the play, fired a wrister into the open net.
But the Capitals again lapsed in the moments that followed. Sixty-seven seconds after Fehr’s goal, Tomas Plekanec gave Montreal the lead once more. On a three-on-one Canadiens rush, the puck ricocheted off the stick of rookie defenseman Nate Schmidt, off John Carlson and then over to Plekanec at the left post, where he swatted it past Holtby. That tally marked the 13th time this season the Capitals have given up a goal within 21 / 2 minutes of scoring one and the third time they’ve done so in the past two games.
Washington didn’t shrink after allowing that goal, though, and found resiliency in driving the play forward with a simple, physical and cycling based approach.
Late in the third it was again the combined effort of Fehr and Grabovski that allowed the Capitals to pull even. The second line had pushed the play up ice on the rush, but after an initial save by Budaj, it regrouped and maintained possession in the offensive zone. Fehr had picked up his stick in the corner, and just as he was set, the puck came to him. He sent a pass out in front to Grabovski, who settled it and ripped a shot between Budaj’s legs to make it 2-2 and force extra time.
“Just use my skates, play soccer little bit,” Grabovski said with a smile when asked how he calmed the puck enough to get a shot off. “Always dangerous when puck in the middle . . . but you try do everything to score a goal — maybe a risky play, but this worked.”
Capitals note: Brooks Laich sat out Friday’s contest with a lower-body injury.