MONTREAL — T.J. Oshie had a pained expression on his face every time he flung a puck at the net for a two-week stretch in November. Sometimes he missed. Sometimes the goaltender made a save. Sometimes he was just unlucky, a victim of the fickle nature of hockey.
Two pucks found creative and fortunate routes into the net for Oshie against the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night. But that his good luck even mattered in Washington’s 3-2 win is a testament to goaltender Braden Holtby, saving a “below average” performance by the Capitals in what Coach Barry Trotz referred to as the team’s “most solemn win” of the season.
They weren’t at their best, but the Capitals extended their winning streak to six thanks to 33 saves by Holtby and two goals by Oshie. Washington also became the first Eastern Conference team this season to beat Montreal, the NHL’s points leader, in regulation.
“We don’t win that hockey game or even get close to that without his performance,” Trotz said. “He was the best player on the ice for both teams.”
After Montreal tied the game on a shorthanded goal less than three minutes into the third, defenseman Karl Alzner fired a shot toward the net from the blue line, and the puck hit Oshie’s stick and deflected in for the game-winning score.
Earlier, when the game was tied at 1, Oshie launched a shot from near the blue line that bounced off Montreal goaltender Mike Condon’s shoulder, shot up into the air, then fell behind Condon for a fluky goal that gave Washington a 2-1 lead into the second intermission.
Oshie had struggled in November, enduring a six-game goal-less streak. That was broken with a snipe on the power play against Tampa Bay last Friday night, and after the game, he said he wasn’t that frustrated by his lack of production because the team had continued to win. Still, he was hopeful that power-play goal was the spark he needed for more scoring.
“Bounces haven’t been really going my way, but we haven’t really needed it as of late,” Oshie said. “We’ve been getting scoring from all over the place, but tonight, we got two good ones. It feels good.”
Take away the lucky bounces, and Washington was outplayed by Montreal. Montreal outshot the Capitals 35-19 and had nearly double the amount of shot attempts, an indication how much more the Canadiens possessed the puck.
But Holtby has always managed to dazzle at Bell Centre; he has never lost in regulation there. Despite coming off a four-day break, his comfort instantly showed. He saved 26 shots in the first two periods, and 35 shots on goal are the most he has faced this season. Holtby, the NHL’s league leader in wins, extended his career-best eight-game winning streak.
After the game, Holtby was asked which saves stood out to him.
“The ones that didn’t go in the net?” he said with a shrug.
Just two minutes into the game, Holtby saved a string of three Montreal shots on goal. That led to Tom Wilson scoring his second goal in as many games on the following shift, giving Washington a 1-0 lead less than three minutes into the game. Montreal pressured from then on, but Holtby saved one point-blank chance after another.
“You’ve got to give him credit, that goalie,” Montreal’s Max Pacioretty said. “That was a lot of huge saves in key moments of the game. It was frustrating not to be able to put some by him. . . .
“ I knew he was a good goalie, but I was really impressed by him tonight.”
Alzner had called it a “benchmark game” for the Capitals. Though the Capitals were hovering at the top of the Metropolitan Division, winning 17 of their first 23 games entering Thursday, they had done so by beating the teams they were supposed to beat.
But against top competition like the New York Rangers, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Dallas Stars, Washington had fallen short. Here was a chance to prove itself against arguably the heaviest of heavyweights, a Montreal team that leads the league in points with 41.
The Canadiens were without top goalie Carey Price, last season’s MVP, who is expected to miss six weeks with a lower-body injury. Washington capitalized with a hot goalie of its own.
“Holtby gave us a chance to steal that game, and he did,” Trotz said. “You’ve seen that in this rink with Carey Price many times, too. It was just our turn.”