WASHINGTON (CBSDC) — The Montreal Canadiens came to Verizon Center already eliminated from playoff contention, having fired their general manager earlier in the week, losers of three straight — including the previous night — and in a state of complete chaos.
The Washington Capitals couldn’t waste this opportunity.
Even though the game was closer then it should have been, the Caps got the two points desperately needed to move ahead of the Buffalo Sabres in the playoff chase and beat the struggling Canadiens 3-2 in a shootout.
“I thought they played well,” forward Brooks Laich said. “They played a very care-free game, which is sometimes a very dangerous team. They pinched their defensemen down the wall. They were aggressive. They were hard on our defensemen, which is a maybe a style that they don’t usually play, but given their position they were playing tonight. We don’t care. We got the two points and it was a happy night.”
The big news heading into to the contest was the return of star center Nicklas Backstrom who missed the past forty games with a concussion.
GAME PHOTOS: CAPS VS. CANADIENS
“First 10 minutes I felt pretty good, but then I become a little tired,” Backstrom said. “But that’s normal when you haven’t played a game in almost three months. I’m just happy we won this game.”
Capitals Head Coach Dale Hunter didn’t ease Backstrom in either. Backstrom skated for nearly 20 minutes, far more than the 15 minutes he thought he would play. His conditioning was put to the test early and often.
“My lungs were a little tired there after a while,” Backstrom said.
Backstrom had two shots on goal, two that were blocked and three misses. Despite the fact the Caps went 0-for-5 on power plays, his teammates were impressed with his play.
“Everyone will say that when you come back you’re going to be a little bit rusty,” forward Troy Brouwer said. “But I didn’t see much on him tonight.”
Veteran Brooks Laich was also happy.
“I think he had a good game,” Laich said. “His first shift, he gets into the corner, slips off a guy, gets the puck, makes a cross-seam pass. It’s nice to see him back out there.”
Backstrom’s pre-game introduction whipped the capacity crowd into a frenzy which carried over into the first period when the team twice lit the lamp.
The first score of the night came when Alexander Semin found a cutting Mathieu Perreault who scored his 15th goal of the season.
For an encore, Matt Hendricks found Jay Beagle who deflected the puck by Peter Budaj with just under four minutes left in the opening period.
The Canadiens came back with only 22 seconds left in the first when Erik Cole snuck one by Michal Neuvirth who had Max Pacioretty knocked into him by Karl Alzner.
Tomas Plekanec had the only other goal in regulation.
Saturday marked the third time in the last five games the Capitals had blown a two-goal lead. On the positive side of things for Dale Hunter’s squad, Michal Neuvirth was magnificent in goal all night. He stopped 39 shots including 32 in the final two periods and overtime.
“He kept us in the game,” Hunter said of Neuvirth. “We sat back and gave them some chances and they had a lot of speed on the wings and they burned us a few times. He had to come up big. He had to be sharp. He stepped up when we really needed him.”
The Caps were saved with another great shootout performance led by Matt Hendricks. Hendricks was able to beat his former teammate Peter Budaj up high for the Caps first shootout goal. Shortly thereafter, Alexander Semin scored the game-winner as the Canadiens missed their first two shots.
The Caps are lucky to get the two points and know they can’t keep giving up two goal leads and be successful down the stretch.
“If you see how we start playing in the second period we just stopped playing, especially in defensive zone,” said Capitals Captain Alex Ovechkin. “We don’t move the puck well, especially like if we have opportunity to give a pass to a center or a wing and it cost us the opportunity to make it 3-1 or 4-1.”
The head coach summed up their struggles in keeping leads perfectly.
“We sat back too much again,” Hunter said. “Everybody is putting the big push on here now. You get too careful and you play into their hands.”
With only three games left, the two points gained in the win were huge given Buffalo’s loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Washington is now two points up on the Sabres for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Caps also hold the tie-breaker. The Caps are also two points behind the Florida Panthers for first in the Southeast Division, but the Panthers have a game in hand.
On Monday, the Caps will face the previously eliminated Lightning in Tampa.
“We just want the wins,” Caps defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We’re building towards making the playoffs. At this point, this is our team, this is how we play, regardless if it’s 5-0 wins or losing 2-0 leads. It’s a team that we’re hopefully going to win everything with, and it might be like this right till the end.”
Listen here to what Dale Hunter, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, Michal Neuvirth, Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer had to say following the win.
1st 4:16 Perreault (15), Semin (31), Alzner (15)
1st 16:10 Beagle (3), Hendricks (5), Knuble (12)
Dale Hunter Postgame Audio
Nicklas Backstrom Postgame Audio
Alex Ovechkin Postgame Audio
Michal Neuvirth Postgame Audio
Brooks Laich Postgame Audio
Troy Brouwer Postgame Audio