MONTREAL — The whoops echoed down the tunnel from the visitors’ dressing room at Bell Centre on Saturday night. For the first time in more than two weeks, the Washington Capitals had a reason to celebrate.
But amid the wide grins and congratulatory high-fives that followed the end of their seven-game losing streak, each member of the team acknowledged the 5-0 win over the Canadiens is only a single step forward. For it to mean anything more, the Capitals must build off their success.
“We’ve got a lot of stress lately, so I’ll let the guys enjoy it. But it’s one,” Coach Adam Oates said, already thinking about Tuesday’s opponent. “Buffalo won again. . . . They’re obviously playing better, and here we go. Every night it’s a dogfight. We need wins.”
Washington did a lot well against the struggling Canadiens, who have lost six of their past eight. It wasn’t just that the Capitals scored five goals but that five players contributed to that output and each of the first four goals resulted from their willingness to go to the net.
That factor was absent during the losing streak, when the Capitals recorded only eight goals in seven games. Players, whether overthinking or pressing too hard for goals, tried for pretty plays and had stopped mining the gritty areas where hard work can unearth offense.
“We’ve been talking about that a lot,” Oates said. “When you’re not scoring, you’ve got to go to the tough areas, grind. You’ve got to be willing to pay the price and get some shots.”
Alex Ovechkin’s goal came on a bouncing rebound when he was one of three Capitals within a foot of the blue paint in Canadiens goaltender Carey Price’s crease. John Erskine’s fluky goal might not have fooled the goaltender without Brooks Laich creating traffic in front. Jay Beagle took advantage of open space to score from the backdoor, and John Carlson threw a shot on net with several Montreal players obscuring Price’s view.
“We give the goalies too easy job,” Ovechkin said of the Capitals’ scoring woes heading into the game. “If we have a chance to shoot the puck, we get a shot, but he sees everything. Right now it’s almost impossible to score from the blue line or half zone if the goalie see the shot. We have to make traffic, have to be more physical.”
The Capitals’ next opponent, Buffalo, will undoubtedly test their diligence.
As maligned as the league-worst Sabres are, they have beaten Washington twice since Dec. 29 because netminder Ryan Miller was outstanding in each game. Miller has stopped 77 of 79 total shots he faced from the Capitals. But for as brilliant as he was, the former Vezina Trophy winner saw the majority — if not all — of those chances.
In addition to their offensive outburst on Saturday, the Capitals proved capable of playing the limiting defensive game they’ve only infrequently executed this season. The Canadiens mustered only 21 shots on goal — nine in the first 40 minutes — but as much of that was their own fault as it was the Capitals’ ability to limit chances.
Washington was also able to move cleanly out of its own end for the first time in recent memory, and goaltender Braden Holtby, despite not facing a heavy workload, made quality stops when necessary.
“We know we can do it,” Holtby said. “Now we know we can play that way from start to finish.”
Through Sunday, Washington sits as one of six teams separated by five points in the Metropolitan Division — four points out of last place and two back of a playoff spot.
All but one of the Capitals’ seven games in 12 days before the Olympic break are against Eastern Conference foes. Given the volatile landscape of the standings, it is imperative they gain points now: Once the NHL season resumes after the two-week hiatus for the Sochi Games, the Capitals will have only 23 games remaining, many of which are against the league’s top squads.
“This is the start. It’s got to be the start for us, and that’s the way our mentality is and has to be.” Jay Beagle said. “We use this as momentum as a confidence builder, and we need to go on a streak here and get some wins. It’s obviously tight in the division. We’ve got to start winning some games back to back and putting some wins together.”