With time running out and their margin for error all but used up, Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals returned to Verizon Center on Friday night and played with the type of desperation their situation demands.
The result was an important 4-1 victory over the Eastern Conference-worst Montreal Canadiens that saw Ovechkin score in his return from injury, Michal Neuvirth earn his first victory in five weeks and, more important, the gap between themselves and eighth place shrink to a single standings point.
“Right now, every situation is an important situation for us,” Ovechkin said. “Every point is an important point. Everybody understand it and everybody was concentrating on the game.”
The win snapped a three-game losing streak and vaulted into the Capitals within a point of eighth-place Florida and two of Southeast Division-leading Winnipeg. After Saturday’s game in Toronto, Washington will have 20 games remaining.
On a night when nothing less than two points would have sufficed, the Capitals got the strong start they sought after surrendering the game’s first goal in each of the previous six contests (they were 1-5 in that span).
Mathieu Perreault opened the scoring only 6 minutes 58 seconds into the game, chipping a crossing pass from Jason Chimera (goal, assist) behind Carey Price (20 saves).
“It’s huge, especially when you get down early and you’re fighting an uphill battle,” Chimera said. “We got one tonight and you could see that we built some confidence off of that.”
Perreault, a native of Drummondville, Quebec, has three goals and two assists in six career games against his hometown team.
“It seems like every time I play them, I get that extra spark, that extra energy and the puck seems to find me when I get around the net,” Perreault said before describing his 11th goal. “Price essentially stopped playing, their ‘D’ stopped playing and the puck just slowly got to me and I just tapped it in. It was kind of a weird play, but I’ll take it.”
In the second period, Chimera scored his 16th goal on a breakaway at 8:32, slipping a shot past Price, whose momentum carried his pads — and the puck — into the net.
“At the end of the day, that’s on me,” Price said. “I’ve got to take the blame for that one.”
Before the crowd had settled back into its seats, Ovechkin blew the game open 16 seconds later. The nifty goal began with a Marcus Johansson drop pass to Dmitry Orlov, who sent a crossing to pass to the Capitals’ captain. Ovechkin then rifled a one-timer that Price had no chance at stopping.
Ovechkin missed Wednesday’s game in Ottawa with an undisclosed lower-body injury, but showed no ill effects. He finished with three shots on goal and two hits. Johansson’s assist, meantime, was his first in five games.
“I feel better,” Ovechkin said. “I skate well.”
Neuvirth, making his first start on home ice since Dec. 20 and only his second on F Street under Coach Dale Hunter, finished with 30 saves.
“He was real solid,” Hunter said. “He didn’t give up a lot of rebounds and the [defense] did a good job in front of him [by] not giving them a lot of scoring chances.”
Neuvirth’s only blemish was a short-handed goal scored by Rene Bourque that resulted from an Ovechkin turnover and ended Montreal’s three-plus game goal drought against Washington at 260:14.
“I make a mistake when they score goal, but it happens,” Ovechkin said.
Borque’s goal made it 3-1 and Capitals winger Joel Ward provided the final margin with an empty-netter. Ward’s goal was his sixth of the season and first since Jan. 7.
Although the Capitals’ shook of Bourque’s third-period tally, it continued a troubling trend for the team. This season they’ve yielded eight short-handed goals, tied for second most in the NHL.
“Lately we’ve been giving up way too many scoring chances on our power play,” Neuvirth said. “It’s not a good thing and we have got to fix that.”
It was unclear whether Neuvirth would be in net against Saturday in the place of struggling starter Tomas Vokoun.
It was also not known whether veteran Mike Knuble will return to the lineup. The 39-year old missed his fourth game this month as a healthy scratch. Knuble, who has three goals this season and none since Dec. 5, was replaced by minor league call-up Keith Aucoin.
“We wanted to more offense,” Hunter said. “That’s what we were looking for. And [Aucoin] did a good job.”