Twenty minutes into Friday’s late afternoon game between the Washington Capitals and the Montreal Canadiens at Verizon Center, the Caps didn’t look like a good bet to halt their four-game winless streak (0-3-1). But after difficult first frame, the Caps got their ship pointed in the right direction. It took a shootout to get it done, but the Capitals came away with a 3-2 victory over the Habs, returning to the win column for the first time in a dozen days.
“I think we played way better in the second period,” says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom. “We started working harder and finishing checks and stuff like that. Obviously it’s good to come back, and it’s nice to get two points.”
Coupled with the New York Rangers’ Friday afternoon loss to the Bruins in Boston, the Capitals’ win over the Canadiens returned Washington to sole possession of second place in the Metropolitan Division standings.
“It feels like a bigger two points probably than it is,” notes Caps defenseman Karl Alzner. “It feels really good, better than a lot of shootout wins for us. We’re happy to be able to put one in the win column, because it’s been way too long for this team.”
Washington had a chance to make its mark on the game early in the first, but was unable to take advantage of two early power play chances that overlapped briefly to give the Caps 13 seconds worth of 5-on-3 time.
Montreal’s Brian Gionta went off for hi-sticking at 9:41 of the first and Ryan White followed him to the box for a tripping violation at 11:28. With 3:47 in consecutive power play time, the Capitals were unable to muster a shot on goal. They had two shots blocked and one that missed the net during that span.
Instead, it was Montreal’s Danny Briere who opened the scoring at the 15:20 mark of the first frame. Briere rolled around the backside of the Washington net to Holtby’s right and tried to stuff the puck on a wraparound bid. Holtby made the save, but the rebound went right back to Briere and he tucked it through the five-hole for a 1-0 Montreal lead.
Washington was outshot 13-4 in the first 20 minutes, and it failed to get a shot on goal after the 4:20 mark of the frame. Montreal had an 11-0 advantage in shots on net over the rest of the first stanza. The Habs had an 18-7 lead in first-period shot attempts.
“[The Canadiens] really took it to us,” says Caps forward Eric Fehr, of Washington’s subpar first period. “They’re pretty shifty up front and they’ve got a lot of speed. I don’t think we were fully prepared for that. They had a lot of offensive chances and obviously Holtsy did a great job of keeping us in it. We were able to reward him later on in the game.”
The Caps came out stronger in the second, and they benefited from the largesse of Habs goaltender Peter Budaj. Budaj went behind the net to play the puck but came out empty-handed. Caps center Mikhail Grabovski stripped the disc and fed it to Fehr in front, giving the Washington winger an easy tap-in tally and tying the game at 1-1 at the 5:17 mark of the second.
As has too frequently been the case this season, Washington allowed a goal against within two minutes of Fehr’s tying strike. Montreal came out of its own end despite having lost a defensive zone draw, and Brian Gionta’s quick indirect pass off the right wing wall enabled the Habs to get around Caps defenseman Nate Schmidt and into the Washington end on a 3-on-1 rush. A shot pinballed around in front of the net and got behind Holtby to restore Montreal’s one-goal lead a mere 67 seconds after the Caps had tied the score.
The Capitals managed to successfully kill a couple of penalties, and Holtby kept the Habs at bay, making some brilliant stops from in tight. Finally, Washington was able to break through for the tying tally.
The Caps broke out of their own end cleanly, and Fehr gained the Habs’ line, driving down the left side with the puck on his backhand. He squeezed off a shot that Budaj stopped, and then Fehr had his stick swept from his hands as he went for the rebound. Troy Brouwer corralled the puck along the left wing half wall and pushed it back down to Fehr, just as the latter regained possession of his stick. Fehr threw a pass to the front where Grabovski was nestled between two Montreal defenders. The Washington center adroitly controlled the puck with his feet, then kicked up to his stick blade and fired a shot from the slot that found purchase behind Budaj. With 5:32 left in regulation, the Capitals had pulled even.
“Their [defense] had been pinching us all night,” notes Fehr, “so in the d-zone I got it and just quickly gave it to Brouwer and tried to spring free. I almost had a bit of a break, but we regrouped it. I gave a grenade to Grabo and he settled it down and put it in. It was a great play by Grabo to put it in.”
It was an amazing play by Grabovski.
“I just used my skates, played soccer a little bit,” shrugs the Caps center. “It’s always dangerous when the puck is in the middle. So you never know; probably the goalie didn’t see the shot. We tried to do everything to score a goal and it maybe was a risky play, but we scored.”
Two nights earlier, the Caps came from behind in the third to pull even with the Ottawa Senators late in regulation, only to cough up what could have been a point when Zack Smith scored with less than three minutes left. On Friday, the Caps were able to successfully nurse the game into overtime and then the shootout, where they nailed down the extra point and halted their slide at four games.
“It was a well fought game in the last two periods,” says Holtby. “We really deserved the comeback this time. It was good to see. We played the right way for the last 45 minutes.”
Holtby shrugged off credit for the win.
“A goalie’s performance goes with the team’s performance,” he says. “It’s the reason I’m standing here with a happy face on this time instead of a sad one, because we played a lot better as a team, including myself.
“I wasn’t real sure what performance we were going to come out with in the second period after that first. Credit to us that we’re still fighting through it. We’re still fighting through those lapses. I think the last two periods were two periods of some of our best hockey throughout the year. It’s showing that we’re resilient and we want to fight through it and get consistent with it.”
Comeback Caps – The Caps have now won four games when trailing after two periods this season, tied with the Chicago Blackhawks for most in the NHL this season.
Washington is now 4-8-1 when trailing after 40 minutes this season.
Biting The Hand That Once Fed Him – Grabovski started his NHL career with Montreal. On Friday he had the primary assist on Washington’s first goal, he scored the Caps’ game-tying goal in the third period, and he supplied the decisive shootout strike.
Not Backing Up – Michal Neuvirth was originally slated to start Friday’s game against the Canadiens, as he had done a week earlier when Montreal made its first visit to Verizon this season. But as he stepped onto the ice in a darkened Verizon Center for pregame warm-ups, Neuvirth stepped right onto a puck. In the process, he suffered a lower body injury that prevented him from keeping his appointment with the Habs.
“My understanding is he stood on a puck,” relates Caps coach Adam Oates. “As he first came out, and the lights come on, he went out and stood on a puck and he has a lower body injury.”
Back On The Ice – With Brooks Laich out of the lineup for the first time this season because of a lower body injury, Caps center Jay Beagle drew back into the lineup for the first time since a 2-0 Washington loss to the New York Rangers at Verizon Center on Oct. 16.
Beagle started the night skating on a line with Jason Chimera and Joel Ward and logged 12:32, a single-game season high for him this season. Beagle had two shots on net, tied for the team lead with five hits in the game and won nine of 15 (60%) face-offs.
Back On The Bench – Nearly five years after he first signed a contract to suit up and serve as Washington’s backup goaltender in a Dec. 12, 2008 game against the Ottawa Senators, Caps video coach Brett Leonhardt was once again inked to a quickie contract and pressed into emergency duty as the Caps’ backup goalie in the wake of Neuvirth’s injury.
Five years ago, Leonhardt found out early in the day that he’d be backing up Brent Johnson. Sporting sweater No. 80, he took warm-ups with the team and sat on the bench until midway through the first period. That’s when Semyon Varlamov arrived from Texas where he had been playing with the AHL Hershey Bears.
This time, Leonhardt signed and suited up after warm-ups, and took his spot at the end of the bench in the second period. That’s because one of the Caps’ equipment staff had to drive back t Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington, collect Leonhardt’s goalie gear and transport it back to Verizon Center so he could suit up.
Line Changes – Oates juggled his lines a bit late in the second period, breaking up the wing tandem of Chimera and Ward that had been intact since the very start of the season. Chimera moved up to the left side of the top line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom while Marcus Johansson slid down to join Beagle and Ward.
“Looking for a spark,” says Oates, his standard reply when asked about mid-game line changes, “just looking for something, some sort of chemistry. I thought Chimmer had great legs tonight. Just looking for some sort of change, maybe affect [the Canadiens’] matchups, etcetera.”
It’s possible we’ll see some more lineup shifting for Saturday’s game against the Islanders.
Benched – Caps defenseman Alexander Urbom played just three shifts totaling 2:15 on the night. He was on the ice for Briere’s goal and spent the remainder of the evening glued to the bench.
“We weren’t happy with his game last game,” explains Oates, “and he basically made the same mistake and it cost us a goal. You’re the last line of defense there. [Assistant coach] Calle [Johansson] and I talked and we feel like he’s struggling to make those reads and it’s too early in the game to allow another one. We talked about it, and we got back in the game. And then you don’t want to put a kid back out there when he’s cold, put him in a situation where he might be overthinking. You don’t want to ruin someone because of that.”
With Urbom decommissioned for the final two periods, a heavier ice time burden fell to fellow southpaw blueliners Karl Alzner (25:23) and Schmidt (23:00).
With another game looming for Washington on Saturday against the Islanders in New York, having to tax its defensemen a bit more than usual – and in an overtime game – did the Caps no favors.
“I guess we’ll find out how we feel tomorrow,” says Alzner. “I didn’t feel too bad during the game. I felt better tonight than the last game for sure for some reason. Hopefully it doesn’t hit us too bad tomorrow, but we’ll have to definitely take care of ourselves tonight.”
Seven/Seven – Fehr now has seven points (two goals and five assists) in his last seven games. And in the middle of that seven-game span, he was a healthy scratch for nine games.
Down On The Farm – The ECHL Reading Royals suffered a 4-1 home ice loss to the Cincinnati Cyclones on Friday night.
Ethan Cox scored the Royal’s only goal of the game and Brandon Anderson stopped 19 of the 23 shots he faced in the Reading nets.
The 10-6 Royals are now in second place in the ECHL’s Atlantic Division, two points behind Wheeling. Reading is off until next Friday when it visits Wheeling.
By The Numbers – John Carlson led the Caps with 31:10 in ice time … Brouwer’s assist on Grabovski’s goal was his third helper in his last four games and his first even-strength assist of the season. It was Brouwer’s first even-strength point since Oct. 19 … Tyson Strachan paced the Capitals with four blocked shots.