Alex Ovechkin unleashes a shot moments before getting leveled by Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher in the first period. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Two days after suffering an ugly defeat at the hands of their top rival, the Washington Capitals wanted to offer a strong response, to correct the mistakes that they made earlier in the week. But Friday night against the Montreal Canadiens they didn’t back up that desire with the required action.

Washington spotted the Canadiens a three-goal lead in the first period, and despite decent push late in the contest that included a pair of tallies from Alex Ovechkin, it was unable to recover from the early deficiencies in a 3-2 loss at Verizon Center.

“We waited until about 18 or 19 minutes left in the first period to look like we had some jump. We spotted them a three-goal lead and things that we’re trying to avoid,” Troy Brouwer said regarding the far-too-familiar turnovers and frequent penalties. “We’ve got to have better starts. We can’t expect to win games if we’re down 3-0.”

It’s become the Capitals’ custom this year to cede much of the opening 20 minutes to their foes. Montreal recorded three goals in a span of 4 minutes 47 seconds in the first period that forced the Capitals to play catch-up for more than 51 minutes of the game, making every mistake or untimely penalty that much more detrimental to the overall effort.

In giving up a trio of tallies to the Canadiens, Washington moved up an unfortunate leader board, having allowed 24 first-period goals in 23 games — fifth most in the league.

“It’s just unacceptable. We can’t come to the game and start like this. There’s just no way you can start like this,” Martin Erat said. “It starts with individual, just focus on the game and play the game plan like what we talk about. Get the puck deep, cycle, stuff like what we talk about it. Don’t just come to the game and think it’s going to come so easy.”

Little seemed easy for the Capitals at the start Friday night. A turnover by Mikhail Grabovski as he crossed Washington’s defensive blue line sent the Canadiens racing back in the opposite direction. One quick pass and veteran winger Travis Moen had ample space and time to beat Michal Neuvirth (28 saves) to make it 1-0 with 8:53 gone in the first.

Just more than three minutes later, David Desharnais tipped a shot in front up and over Neuvirth to make it 2-0. The play was reviewed to determine whether Desharnais’s redirect came on a high-stick, but there wasn’t conclusive video evidence to overturn the call on the ice. While it was a questionable play, Oates was more frustrated because the Capitals made the precise errors off the faceoff loss that they work to avoid.

“It’s a faceoff goal from a shot from the point that we talk about every single day and we made mistakes on coverage,” Oates said. “You make mistakes in the league, you get burned. There’s no other way to cut it.”

Then 16 seconds after the Capitals fell behind by two Erat was whistled for roughing – one of six minor penalties on the night that disrupted any type of rhythm they might have created — forcing the hosts to thwart a Montreal power play that entered the contest ranked second in the league. Alex Urbom lost track of Daniel Briere at the top of the crease, making it almost too easy for the veteran center to tap a shot across the goal line after a setup from Josh Georges.

Unlike when they trailed against Pittsburgh earlier in the week, the Capitals showed a little more fight.

Washington received a critical opportunity to squeak back into the contest late in the first with a pair of power plays. Ovechkin fired a bad-angle wrist shot from low along the goal line between Budaj’s pads to cut the Capitals’ deficit to 3-1 with 22.3 seconds remaining in the first. The tally was Ovechkin’s 18th goal, giving him the league lead once again.

The Capitals played with better poise in the second period and even had a few prime scoring chances — breakaways for both Nicklas Backstrom and Aaron Volpatti, a point-blank one-timer by Marcus Johansson down low — but couldn’t dent backup netminder Peter Budaj. With a three-goal lead to protect, Budaj was superb finishing with 25 saves.

Ovechkin added his second goal of the night with 12:27 gone in the third period to draw Washington within one. It was the type of tally not often seen from Ovechkin before this season — battling for space in front of the net, the star right wing tipped a point shot by John Carlson to make it 3-2. While a comeback seemed within their reach, the Capitals couldn’t find the equalizer before time expired and were unable to erase the damage done by their lack of focus at the start.

“It’s almost like we’re waiting for a momentum shift to come along instead of creating it. I think that’s the case, our starts have got to be better,” Mike Green said, “That’s what killed us tonight.”

Note: Washington assigned defensive prospect Dmitry Orlov to the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears.