Nicklas Backstrom, left, took the ice with the Capitals against Montreal… (Jonathan Newton/The Washington…)
For the third time in five games the Washington Capitals watched a two-goal lead evaporate on Saturday night. But with the end of the regular season only a week away and the battle for the playoffs reaching a climax, the method takes a back seat to the points earned.
On a night that saw Nicklas Backstrom return to the lineup and Michal Neuvirth stand on his head in goal, the Capitals came away with a necessary 3-2 shootout victory over the Montreal Canadiens at Verizon Center to push closer to a postseason berth.
“All that really matters at the end of the day is you get your two points,” winger Troy Brouwer said. “You know we’re not exactly happy with the way we got the two points, but we got them and that’s good enough right now.”
Washington (40-31-8) now holds 88 points, two ahead of the Buffalo Sabres — who lost their second straight game, 4-3 to Toronto — for the eighth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. The Capitals also closed the gap on the Southeast Division-leading Florida Panthers to two points, but they’ve played one more game.
Early on the contest was all about welcoming Backstrom to game action after he missed 40 games with a concussion. In his first game since Jan. 3, Backstrom showed hardly any signs of rust early but admitted he began to tire as the game wore on. All told, Backstrom skated 19 minutes 40 seconds as part of the first line and recorded two shots on goal. He also won 12 of 18 faceoffs and finished as with minus-1 rating.
Even better for Backstrom was when he absorbed a big hit in the second period from Montreal’s Mike Blunden without any negative effects.
“It’s a relief, actually,” Backstrom said of being hit again by an opponent. “I’ve been thinking a lot about this game and if I’m ready or not. Couldn’t really sleep before the game. So it’s a little back and forth. But I tell you right now I made the right decision. I was happy to be back and I felt pretty good — even if I was a little rusty.”
The Capitals were boosted by Backstrom’s return, but it was Neuvirth who was superb. Neuvirth made 39 saves en route to his second straight victory, making a case to be the Capitals’ go-to netminder down the stretch now that veteran Tomas Vokoun is sidelined again with a strained groin muscle.
After the Capitals took a 2-0 lead just 16:10 into the first period, Neuvirth went on to face numerous quality chances from Montreal in the final 40 minutes of regulation and overtime. Washington was outshot, 32-21, after the first period, but Neuvirth rose to the occasion nearly each time his teammates turned over the puck or were beaten on a one-on-one play.
“Michal made big saves,” forward Brooks Laich said. “He came up really big on the penalty kill, especially in the third period. He’s battled in there and with Tomas out again, it’s Michal’s show. He did a great job coming in in Boston [Thursday], and he played great again tonight. It’s good that he’s finding his game.”
Washington dominated the opening 19 minutes of the contest. Mathieu Perreault scored on a pretty feed from Alexander Semin to make it 1-0 at 4:16, his third goal in four games this season against his hometown team.
Despite squandering three early power-play chances — the unit went 0 for 5 on the night — the Capitals went up 2-0 with less than four minutes remaining in the opening period thanks to a strong shift by the fourth line. On a three-on-two rush, Matt Hendricks centered the puck to Jay Beagle for an easy tip past Montreal backup goaltender Peter Budaj (31 saves).
That edge wouldn’t remain intact for long, though. As time ticked down in the period the Canadiens suddenly took up residence in the offensive zone and peppered Neuvirth with shots. Max Pacioretty barreled into the crease where he was shoved into the goaltender by defenseman Karl Alzner in the final minute of play. The traffic caused a rebound to pop out to Erik Cole for an easy shot that put Montreal on the board with 21.5 seconds left in the first.
In the second, the Capitals fell into a lull rather than counterattack. The instances of Washington sitting back, whether by design to protect a lead or simply a lack of response to an opponent’s pressure, have become far too commonplace for any of the players’ tastes.
“Well, again, if you see how we start playing in the second period, we just stopped playing, especially in defensive zone,” winger Alex Ovechkin said. “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.”
Washington’s passes became sloppy and turnovers occurred more frequently, allowing the Canadiens to chip away until Tomas Plekanec danced around Roman Hamrlik to make it 2-2 at 14:31 of the second. From that point forward, however, Neuvirth ensured that the Capitals would come away with a pair of points. Hendricks and Semin did their part by scoring in the shootout.
“Neuvy played really strong tonight, played really, really well for us,” defenseman Dennis Wideman said. “He made some huge saves, none bigger than the one with one second left in the game. P.K. [Subban] ripped that one and he turned it aside with a good blocker save. He played strong. If it wasn’t for him, it would’ve been a different game tonight.”
Capitals notes: Defenseman John Erskine was placed on injured reserve. Erskine, who recently has suffered from a lower-body injury, has missed 28 of the past 29 games, mostly as a healthy scratch.