MONTREAL — With their top two centers at the top of a lengthy list of players absent with injuries Tuesday night, the Washington Capitals simply turned to another pair to earn their ninth consecutive victory.
Marcus Johansson scored a pair of goals and Brooks Laich added another to fuel a 4-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre. The Capitals improved to 92 points on the season and trail Philadelphia by one point for first place in the Eastern Conference.
“Those two guys being out — one, somebody’s got to pick up the slack, but also it’s an opportunity for somebody else,” said Laich, who along with Johansson stepped up in the absence of Nicklas Backstrom and Jason Arnott. “You get a little more ice and you try to make the most of it.”
Rookie Braden Holtby, making his fourth consecutive start, fought through arguably his most unsteady performance since he was recalled on March 3. The Capitals were gifted a 1-0 lead just 66 seconds into the game when Canadiens goaltender Carey Price watched a puck he expected to wrap behind the net deflect off the glass and straight out to Johansson for a tap-in goal. But 20 seconds later, Holtby couldn’t get back into position after trying to clear the puck up the boards, and Travis Moen evened the score at 1.
“I got off to a bit of a rough start, a bad decision on my part,” said Holtby, who finished with 24 saves. “It could have easily been six or seven goals if my defense wouldn’t have been so good with passes across on odd-man rushes and what-not. The credit goes all to them tonight.”
A would-be go-ahead goal by Matt Hendricks was disallowed on video review 2 minutes 6 seconds into the game even though replays showed the puck cross the goal line before the net was dislodged.
Things began to settle down after that, and the Capitals started to establish themselves in the offensive zone. They took control of the pace by clogging the neutral zone and spending a lopsided amount of time in the offensive zone. Washington peppered Price with 41 shots, 33 in the first two periods.
On a designed breakout play just more than 13 minutes in, Karl Alzner sprung Laich, who streaked down the right wing. Laich deftly avoided a lumbering and flat-footed Hal Gill to pull the puck in front and score to make it 2-1. It was the 100th goal of his NHL career.
For all the time the Capitals spent in the Montreal zone however, that one-goal advantage was the largest they could build in the first period. They squandered 1:18 of a five-on-three leading into the intermission. The Canadiens erased the gap early in the second period when a seemingly harmless shot by Andrei Kostitsyn in the high slot floated past Holtby to tie the game at 2.
“I was a little worried, quite frankly, when they scored the second one because he hadn’t had a lot of work and I was wondering if he was getting tired,” Coach Bruce Boudreau said of Holtby. “He settled in, he made some good saves when he needed to, and in the end that’s what you need the goalie to do.”
Over the course of this season-best winning streak, a tie game heading into the third period has not been cause for the Capitals to worry. They wrestled the game away from the Canadiens with the simple mind-set of taking care of their defensive play first and then received timely goals from Johansson, who was set up for a pretty backhander in front by Alex Ovechkin, and Mike Knuble, on the receiving end of a two-on-one with Marco Sturm.
“We make the simple plays all the time and I think we stick to it,” Johansson said. “When you make those plays, you don’t get too many chances the other way and that’s when you get comfortable. You play your game and I think we got a lot of scoring chances, so I think we played pretty good.”
Capitals notes: Arnott did not travel with the team for this three-game stint and is listed as week-to-week with an undisclosed injury. . . . Right wing Eric Fehr played only 5:16 and left the game with an upper-body inury after Montreal scored its second goal. It was Fehr’s fourth contest since returning from a 22-game stint on the sidelines with a dislocated shoulder.