By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 28, 2010; 11:59 PM
Over the past several weeks, the Washington Capitals started to implement a more defensive mind-set and system into their roster of offensive thoroughbreds. It isn't a perfect transition as the group learns to adjust and react with patience and even an occasional neutral-zone trap, but lately they've started to see tangible results.
On Tuesday at Verizon Center the Capitals put together one of their better all-around performances, with a particular commitment to the defensive game plan, in recent memory. They didn't allow the Montreal Canadiens many quality scoring chances and remained patient in pursuit of a balanced 3-0 win that marked Washington's fourth victory in the past five contests.
"When you change things, if they don't work you're in trouble," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I thought everybody played really hard and they were committed to what they were doing. It's a new way for us to play but I think we're liking it."
Combined with a first-period lead and noticeable momentum from the opening faceoff and timely saves by goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who recorded his second shutout of the season by stopping all 25 Canadiens' shots, the defensive dedication helped hand Montreal its seventh loss in nine games. The outcome offered a little solace for Washington in its first meeting against Montreal since falling to the Canadiens in the first round of the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs, but the Capitals were more pleased with their unified focus.
"I think that's something we've been working on over the course of the season it's an important adjustment for us," Mike Green said of the Capitals' composure. "We didn't know how to balance both offense and defense and we're starting to get it and understand it now and you can see that patience in our game. We're not as aggressive at certain times; we're playing smart. It's about playing consistent throughout the course of the year and the playoffs."
While attention this week might be focused on the upcoming Winter Classic, which is four days away, from the outset it was clear the Capitals were prepared for a fast start against the Canadiens. Washington thwarted two early Montreal power-play chances and despite being outshot carried the energy of the contest and quickly turned chances against Canadiens' goaltender Carey Price, who finished with 27 saves.
The Capitals would take a one-goal lead on a tally by Jay Beagle, his second goal in four games, with less than four minutes remaining in the first period. It was the reward for a strong grinding shift started by Matt Hendricks dumping the puck in deep, followed by a battle for possession below the goal line that included Eric Fehr and Beagle, who retrieved the puck when it popped out. Beagle skated into the slot, spun around and with his back to the net sent a nifty backhand shot past Price.
"There's a guy that's making a great bid to stay here," Coach Bruce Boudreau said of Beagle, who has played seven games with the Capitals this season. "It's his fourth year pro and his work ethic is second to none. You keep saying: 'Okay, is it going to slow down? Is it because of initial stuff, like is the adrenaline going to wear down? But it doesn't and he keeps going."
Washington upped its advantage with 37.5 seconds remaining in the first when Green made it 2-0 with his second goal in three games. Canadiens rookie P.K. Subban overcommitted in the neutral zone, leaving an opening for the Capitals' Nicklas Backstrom to send a smooth pass cross ice to Green, who joined the play late. Green fired a one-timer from the left faceoff circle as he fell down to make it 2-0. Alex Ovechkin would later add an empty-net goal to close out the scoring.
Once they had built a two-goal lead, the Capitals never panicked or wavered from their strategy. They missed on some scoring chances, coming up empty on seven power plays during which they would take 15 shots. But Washington focused on establishing a strong forecheck, minimizing turnovers, preventing an opponent's speed through the middle of the ice and keeping things moving quickly on defense.
"A lot of it starts in the offensive zone," Scott Hannan said. "Our forwards didn't turn the puck over, which limits the speed their forwards can get. It was pretty much a good all around game, the whole way through. When things started to break down there were guys to step up and make plays. . . . We just kept working and kept working the plan."
Capitals note: Defenseman Jeff Schultz returned to the lineup after missing nine straight games with a fractured right thumb. He played 13 minutes 16 seconds and finished with an even plus-minus rating, and blocked two shots while skating with John Erskine.