MONTREAL — The Washington Capitals weren’t about to let one sloppy performance get in their heads. The disappointment of Thursday’s loss in Ottawa was an anomaly, players insisted, nothing a little renewed attention to detail and focus couldn’t fix heading into Saturday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens.
The Capitals proved their point with a 5-1 thumping of the Canadiens at Bell Centre that was so thorough it brought out the boo birds and hecklers of the home team before the end of the first period.
Alex Ovechkin recorded his 29th and 30th goals, increasing his league lead in that category to three, and Troy Brouwer added two goals of his own. The Capitals now have 52 points and hold a three-point lead over the Winnipeg Jets for first place in the Southeast Division. Washington can clinch the division title and the third seed in the Eastern Conference with a regulation win over the Jets on Tuesday at Verizon Center.
The Capitals needed a win over Montreal to keep a tight grasp on the top spot in the Southeast after Winnipeg picked up a point in a 5-4 shootout loss to the New York Islanders earlier Saturday. While the win over the Canadiens came in impressive fashion, even Ovechkin insisted that Washington must remain focused on the greater task of securing a postseason berth.
“I pretty happy I’m scoring goals. I’m pretty happy we’re winning games,” Ovechkin said. “But we still have three games left and next game is going to be the biggest game of the year. We have to be professional about it and be ready for the next game.”
It took 4 minutes 49 seconds for the Capitals to record a shot on Montreal goaltender Carey Price, who has struggled recently and was pulled in two of his past three starts. But that first shot, from Ovechkin, found the back of net.
The sequence started when defenseman P.K. Subban tried to send the puck out from behind his own net to center Tomas Plekanec. The pass didn’t connect, and Ovechkin swooped in to pick up the loose puck, skated through the left circle and fired a wrister between Price’s legs for a 1-0 lead.
Just more than a minute later the Caps scored again. Brouwer scored his first with 5:57 gone in the first when his wrister from the top of the left circle deflected off Lars Eller and past Price. With just three shots on goal, the Capitals held a 2-0 lead and had only just started to settle into the game.
“We talked about it before the game, that we needed to be focused tonight to come out strong and we did,” said Mike Green, who recorded a pair of assists. “Especially on the road, it’s important to come out of the gates hard. . . . When two goals go in, or at least a goal, you have that ease at least that we can just go out and play our system and be successful.”
Even when Washington, already up by two goals, was whistled for a pair of penalties in the middle of the opening period – Matt Hendricks for cross checking and Steve Oleksy for interference — the Canadiens accomplished little more than irritating the faithful clad in “bleu, blanc et rouge” in the stands.
Methodically, the Capitals killed off the minors. Washington’s penalty killers broke up passes, cleared the zone with ease and didn’t allow their foes to generate any momentum. Montreal’s two power plays generated only three shots. The trend continued throughout the game, as the Capitals’ penalty kill was a perfect 5 for 5 against the Canadiens and the unit is now 13 for 13 in the past four games. [An earlier version of this article mistakenly reported the Capitals’ success on penalty kills against the Canadiens and in the past four games. This version has been corrected.]
Early in the second period, the penalty killers were called upon again when Martin Erat went off for holding the stick just 18 seconds in. This time, the Capitals did give up a chance as Plekanec found himself alone at the top of the crease, but Braden Holtby coolly poked the puck off Plekanec’s stick, defusing the play before the veteran forward had a chance to make a move. It was one of several important stops that Holtby made appear effortless as he finished with 35 saves.
Brouwer’s second goal put the Capitals up 3-0 with 3:49 gone in the second when Marcus Johansson found the rangy winger entering the zone at the top of the right circle. Price had dropped into the butterfly position, leaving the top of the net exposed when Brouwer received the puck and fired high to the blocker side.
“We looked comfortable tonight. We’ve had a few games where we were playing with the lead and we didn’t look very comfortable. We were a little tentative, making turnovers,” said Brouwer, who has 19 goals in this shortened season, just three shy of his career high of 22. “But tonight we kept getting pucks deep, making sure that we didn’t give them a whole lot.”
David Desharnais gave the Capitals their first power play of the game more than seven minutes into the second period when he held Mike Ribeiro, and the league’s top power play unit seized the opportunity. Just 49 seconds into the man-advantage, Nicklas Backstrom’s shot went off the right post then the left and then trickled across the goal line to give the Caps a 4-0 lead on just 11 shots.
From there, it was little more than a formality, as the Capitals continued to handle Montreal’s power play, which entered the game tied for fourth in the NHL. Max Pacioretty put Montreal on the board with less than six minutes to play, but it was of little consequence as the Capitals had what they came for — a victory that showed their true capabilities after seeing their winning streak snapped in a sloppy 3-1 loss on Thursday against the Senators.
“We knew in Ottawa we didn’t play the way we were capable of playing, so it was easy for us to just move on from that and really focus on this one,” Ribeiro said. “We did. We played well in our position, we played simple, did the right things and came out with the win, a big win for us.”