Braden Holtby stopped the first shot, with the puck bounding off his right pad and rolling to the faceoff circle. With two bodies in front of him, the goaltender moved closer to the post for a better view, but all he saw was a black disc whizzing toward the opposite goal post and no way to get over there in time to stop it.
The goal gave the Montreal Canadiens a three-goal lead less than two minutes into the second period Wednesday night, making another Washington Capitals comeback unlikely. It sent Holtby to the bench and straight into the tunnel, pulled in favor of his backup. And it continued the Capitals’ recent trend of poor starts. They would rally from the deficit, but their comeback attempt fell short in a 4-3 loss to the Canadiens.
“We’re always talking about it, talking about coming out hard and playing good in the first period because that’s something we’ve been missing,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “Looks like we’ve got to keep talking about it.”
Washington, down 4-1 entering the third period, has been in similar situations before, repeatedly proving that it’s never completely out of a game. The point was driven home again Wednesday night when Dmitry Orlov scored with 7 minutes 36 seconds left and Andre Burakovsky scored with 2:53 left, cutting the margin to one and bringing the Verizon Center crowd to its feet.
The Capitals pulled Philipp Grubauer in the final two minutes for an extra attacker, but the equalizer never came. Backstrom got a laser shot on goal from the high slot with three seconds left, but goalie Mike Condon caught it in his glove.
The loss dropped the Capitals to a comfortable 44-11-4, but it might serve as a jolt for a team that has given up the first goal in 13 of its past 16 games. This was the sixth consecutive game the Capitals had been scored on first — yet they entered on a four-game winning streak.
“We had a push at the end and almost pulled it off again,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “But we can’t keep doing that.”
Holtby said Monday that for a team in Washington’s position, so far ahead of everyone else in the league, mentally “getting up” for games can be a challenge. Other teams see Washington as this season’s juggernaut, keenly aware of the importance of a strong start if they want to knock off the Presidents’ Trophy front-runners.
“It shouldn’t be, but maybe you’re doing it without being aware of it,” Backstrom said. “You’re trying to do the same routine every night, trying to get ready as best as possible.”
Said Jason Chimera: “We’re not going out there to crap the bed in the first period. You want to play better than that for sure. I don’t think it’s anything where you’re looking at the standings. You’re not complacent at all. Tonight wasn’t our best. We’ve gotten away with not our best sometimes this year.”
Outside of some spotty rebound control at times, Holtby wasn’t to blame for Washington’s three-goal deficit. He saw 18 shots on goal, but Grubauer took the loss, keeping Holtby undefeated in regulation against Montreal for his career.
The trouble started in front of Holtby. Dale Weise took a shot from the inside, and Holtby allowed a poor rebound, with the puck shooting out into the slot in front of him. The defensive pair of Brooks Orpik and Orlov was beside the crease, but neither swept the puck out of danger in time, and Alex Galchenyuk took advantage 9:09 into the game.
The Capitals fell into a two-goal deficit after winger Tom Wilson was called for hooking in the offensive zone. On Montreal’s power play, Brendan Gallagher punched in a rebound just 30 seconds into the man advantage. Wilson had taken a boarding minor earlier in the first period, and after he caused Washington to be shorthanded twice with poor penalties, Trotz essentially benched him for the second period. Wilson got just one shift, and it was shorthanded.
“Purely a statement,” Trotz said. “Nothing else.”
The Canadiens made it a three-goal lead with Tomas Fleischmann’s goal just 1:54 into the second period, chasing Holtby off the ice. Trotz said that wasn’t an indictment on Holtby but a maneuver to jolt his team. In the past, it has worked. On Wednesday, it wasn’t enough.
“We didn’t play sound enough hockey tonight,” Trotz said. “That was a really junky game for us.”