Points Possession – There’s an old law saying that goes, “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” In hockey, possession is also important, but it wasn’t nine-tenths of the law at Bell Centre on Tuesday. Montreal had the puck for much of the game’s final 50 minutes, but the Capitals’ defense and goaltender Michal Neuvirth stymied the Habs in a 3-2 Washington win over the Canadiens. The triumph enabled the Caps to maintain their two-point lead over the Winnipeg Jets in the Southeast Division standings.
Washington started swiftly, generating strong scoring chances up and down its lineup from the start of the contest. The Caps had an 11-2 advantage in shot attempts through the first six and a half minutes of the game, but Habs goalie Carey Price walled up the front of the net and prevented the Caps from gaining an early advantage on the scoreboard.
Montreal drew first blood, converting on a 2-on-2 rush late in the first frame. Alex Galchenyuk carried into the Washington zone and slipped around Caps defenseman John Carlson. Carlson’s partner John Erskine neatly poke-checked the puck behind the Caps’ net, but Habs winger Brandon Prust collected it and fed a perfect backhand pass to the front of the net where Montreal center Lars Eller wristed it home.
By the end of the first, Montreal had turned that early Washington shot attempt advantage around. The Habs held an 18-16 lead in that department after 20 minutes of play.
“We came out, we had a great start,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “We were obviously outshooting them [by] a lot. All four lines got into the game early and got us some good momentum. We didn’t score but there’s not a lot of scoring the league. I don’t think the guys were affected by that.”
Washington killed off the only Montreal power play of the night in the first two minutes of the second, and then it went to work.
The Caps pulled even at 7:50 of the second. Carlson passed to Ovechkin, who gained the zone and neatly skittered from right to left just inside the blueline, stickhandling through Montreal’s Michael Ryder in the process. With linemate Marcus Johansson camped near the paint, the Caps’ captain released a shot that eluded Price to make it a 1-1 game.
“I just want to shoot the puck,” says Ovechkin. “I beat Ryder and I knew lots of traffic would be in front because Jojo flew there. I know the shot was not that hard, but it goes in so it’s good.”
The goal was Ovechkin’s 26th of the season, putting him all alone in the league lead in that department. Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos netted his 26th a bit later in the evening to put the two players in a tie for the league lead.
Less than two minutes after Ovechkin’s goal, the Caps grabbed their first lead of the night. Washington’s third line worked the puck around the walls on a cycle, then right defenseman Steve Oleksy pinched to keep the puck in, banking it off the opposite wall to partner Jack Hillen. Hillen found a lane and floated a shot netward, where Washington had some traffic in the form of wingers Eric Fehr and Jason Chimera.
From my vantage point almost directly above the Montreal net, it looked as though Chimera ticked the puck with a high stick, and then it popped into the air and bounced off Canadiens defender Andrei Markov on its way down, nestling into the back of the net.
The goal was originally given to Hillen, and later changed to Fehr. Either way, the result was a 2-1 Washington lead.
Having had his first goal as a Cap taken away – although he didn’t know it at the time – Hillen scored one of his own at 5:33 of the third to give the Caps some needed breathing room. After a first shot was blocked, Marcus Johansson retrieved the puck and teed it up for Hillen again. With Ovechkin occupying Habs defenseman Josh Gorges in front, Hillen let it fly and it beat Price to make it a 3-1 game.
Montreal kept pushing hard, owning a territorial and possession advantage but having difficulty getting its shots through. But with 3:22 remaining in the third, Eller deflected a Nathan Beaulieu shot from the left point past Neuvirth to draw the Habs within one.
The Caps got a strong offensive zone shift from the Mathieu Perreault line immediately after the goal, and the Habs never mounted a serious threat for the equalizer.
“I think that was important for us,” says Fehr of the shift following the second Montreal goal. “Obviously Perreault playing at home, he’s got some good legs today. Chimmer is one of the fastest guys in the league. I’m just trying to help out and get pucks deep.
“I thought we had a lot of good cycle plays. We took a lot of momentum away from their team when they had a chance to get the crowd into it. I thought we did a good job of keeping them quiet for a bit and keeping us on the right side of the puck.”
The Canadiens had 30 shot tries to 17 for the Caps in the second period and owned a 28-13 lead in that department in the third. For the night, Montreal teed up 76 shots to just 46 for Washington. But the Habs were able to get just 29 of those shot attempts on net; the Capitals combined to block a whopping 34 of them and another 13 went amiss.
By night’s end the Habs had 27 even-strength shots on goal to Washington’s 26, but Washington had what it wanted most, two more points.
“It was an important game because we need the points,” says Oates. “We played good. Tomorrow, we’ll have a meeting, we’ll talk about some things, work on it and then we’ll turn the page because we’ve got Carolina on Thursday. That’s the next big game for us. Every game is important.”
Road Killers – The Capitals have now collected at least a point in each of their last eight road games, fashioning a 7-0-1 mark in those contests. The only blemish in that eight-game stretch was a 5-4 overtime loss to the Flyers on Easter Sunday, a game in which Washington owned a one-goal lead heading into the final 10 seconds of regulation.
Washington’s 48-game schedule for the truncated 2012-13 campaign is spread over a span of 99 days. But the Caps played half of their 24 road games this season in a span of just 32 days, a stretch that ended Tuesday night in Montreal.
Starting on March 9 against the Islanders in New York and concluding on Tuesday in Montreal, the Caps played 12 road games in 10 different cities with half a dozen home games mixed in to make it 18 days in 32 nights in 11 cities.
After starting the season with a 3-6-1 mark in its first 10 road games, the Caps went 8-3-1 in those dozen road contests, despite going 1-3 in the first four.
The Caps are now 11-9-2 on the road this season, ensuring themselves of no worse than a break-even record away from Verizon Center in 2012-13.
Mystery Achievement – It was hard to tell who scored Washington’s second goal. Hillen originally got credit for what looked like his first goal as a Capital, but the goal was later changed to Fehr’s. That’s how it reads on the scoresheet, but from above it looked as though it should have been credited to Chimera.
It looked like Chimera got it with a high stick, which would have nullified the goal if it went directly in. But once it hit Markov, it was a live puck again and Chimera appeared to be the last to touch it.
“I don’t know if I officially got credit for it or not,” says Fehr, “but I got a tip off Hillen’s shot and after that I have no idea what happened. I thought maybe it went off my chest and went in, but that wasn’t the case.
“I’m happy, definitely. I’m more happy about our win. To come into Montreal against a team that’s playing really well and to get two points is really important for us.”
Hillen ended up getting his first goal as a Cap later in the game, and it stood up as the game-winner. Tuesday’s goal was Hillen’s first since a Dec. 6, 2011 tally while he was a member of the Nashville Predators. It was the second game-winner of Hillen’s NHL career and his first since March 11, 2011 when he supplied the game-winning strike for the New York Islanders in a game against Boston.
“Honestly, I don’t even care about scoring goals,” says Hillen. “If you put the puck on the net, good things happen and that’s what happened on those two plays.”
Shutting The Door – Washington’s last two games have been against the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Canadiens, two of the top five teams in the NHL in terms of goal scoring. The Caps limited both of those clubs to just two goals, and they surrendered a total of only three even-strength goals in the two games.
“I think our team is playing really well defensively,” says Fehr. “We’re pressuring the puck really well. We’re not giving other teams time. Skilled players want time and we’re not giving it to them. It’s a good job by our defense closing gaps and by our forwards coming back to help them.”
The Lightning is currently third in the NHL with an average of 3.15 goals per game and Montreal ranks fifth at 3.05. The Caps themselves are tied for sixth with Anaheim at 2.92.
The Capitals have allowed 2.80 goals per game, 20th in the league. But that figure has been much more impressive over the team’s last 29 games.
Minute Management – Washington tweaked its defensive alignment going into Tuesday’s game, breaking up the Hillen-Carlson and the John Erskine-Steve Oleksy tandems to construct new units consisting of Erskine-Carlson and Hillen-Oleksy.
At game’s end, Erskine led the Caps with 22:26 in ice time and 21:28 in even-strength ice time. Hillen was the low man in ice time at 15:08 but he clearly had a significant impact on the outcome with those minutes.
Erskine and Carlson blocked seven Montreal shots each, and Washington’s six defensemen blocked 24 of the team’s total of 34 blocked shots on the night.
Net Gain – Neuvirth made 27 saves to earn his second win in as many starts. It’s the first time Neuvirth has won consecutive starts in more than a year, since March 29-31, 2012.
“The last win gave me my confidence,” says Neuvirth. “I felt good today. The guys did an outstanding job. They blocked shots and we stuck to our system. It was a great team effort for two big points on the road.”
Filling In – The Capitals lost a top nine forward to injury in each of their three games prior to Tuesday’s tilt in Montreal, and none of the three were back in the lineup against the Canadiens.
Wojtek Wolski was inserted into the lineup for the first time since March 30, and he started the night on the Caps’ second line with Mike Ribeiro and Troy Brouwer.
By the second period, however, Oates had installed Aaron Volpatti into that spot on the left of Ribeiro and dropped Wolski down in the lineup. Volpatti acquitted himself well, skating 14:26 on the night, getting two shots on net and registering six hits. He was also effective at getting pucks in deep to force Montreal to play a 200-foot game when the Habs were trailing in the second half of the contest.
“You never want to see teammates go down obviously,” says Volpatti. “I thought I had a pretty good game and I got some more minutes for it. I was just trying to do the little things and give my linemates some time out there.”
Volpatti’s ice time in Tuesday’s game represents a single-game career high.
On A Heater – Ovechkin now has 21 goals and 34 points in his last 24 games. He is sixth in the NHL in scoring with 44 points.
Caps center Nicklas Backstrom had two assists on the night and he now has 11 helpers in his last five games. Backstrom has 25 assists and 30 points in his last 24 games, and he ranks third in the NHL with 36 assists.
Johansson has four goals and 16 points in his last 14 games.
Hillen has a goal and four points in his last two games. He has consecutive multiple-point games for the first time in his NHL career.
Streak Stopped – When Eller scored Montreal’s first goal of the game at 15:44 of the first, it ended a lengthy shutout string over the Canadiens at Bell Centre spun by three Capitals netminders over a span of more than two years.
Back on March 15, 2011, Montreal’s Andrei Kostitsyn scored at 3:28 of the second period period in a game against the Caps and rookie goalie Braden Holtby at Bell Centre. The Caps went on to win that game by a 4-2 score.
Less than two weeks later, Holtby pitched a 2-0 shutout over the Habs here on March 26, 2011. Last season, both Neuvirth and ex-Habs goalie Tomas Vokoun shutout the Canadiens at Bell Centre, and the streak continued until Eller’s goal tonight.
When it was all said and done, the Caps blanked the Habs for 232 minutes and 16 seconds, the equivalent of nearly four full games.
By The Numbers – Ovechkin led the Caps with eight hits … Montreal won 41 of the game’s 65 draws (63%), with ex-Caps center Jeff Halpern winning seven of nine (72%) … Prust and Rene Bourque led the Habs with six hits each … Max Pacioretty (five shots, seven blocked, two missed) accounted for 14 of the Habs’ 76 shot attempts.