The Washington Capitals knew during Saturday night’s matchup in Montreal against the Canadiens that the Winnipeg Jets had cut their lead in the Southeast Division to a single point by virtue of a shootout loss to the New York Islanders. What was a big enough game already — a Saturday night game in Montreal is akin to a holiday festival — became even bigger, with Tuesday’s game against Winnipeg potentially setting up to be a game to decide the division.
With all that drama in mind, the Caps came out buzzing, took control of all three zones early, and spanked the Canadiens to the tune of a 5-1 final. As has been the case for the past 30 games, the team was led by their captain, Alex Ovechkin, who tallied twice to extend his league-leading goal total to 30, and their goalie, Braden Holtby, who made 35 saves look easy in the winning effort.
Washington is now 9-1-0 in the last 10 games.
The Caps jumped all over the Canadiens in the first period with a strong forecheck. That early attack paid dividends at 4:49 when Ovechkin corralled a turnover in the high slot, turned away from the defense, faked a pass to Marcus Johansson who was on the far post, and ripped a wrist shot past beleaguered Montreal goalie Carey Price to get on the board first.
Just over a minute later, Troy Brouwer scored the first of his two goals. Mike Ribeiro (three assists) won an offensive zone faceoff to Karl Alzner at the point. Alzner found Brouwer walking off the half-boards and the veteran forward found space between two Montreal defenders. Brouwer, from the top of the left-wing faceoff circle then whipped a shot toward net that eluded Price through a maze of bodies, including the aforementioned Ribeiro and winger Martin Erat to give the Caps a 2-0 lead not even six minutes into the contest.
With the normally rowdy Centre Bell crowd taken out of the game, the Caps turned up the forecheck even tighter, making the sledding for the slumping Canadiens almost too much to bear.
The Caps did not let up in the second stanza. Brouwer got his second of the night at 3:49 of the second frame. Ribeiro won a foot race to a puck in the corner and gained control over two Canadiens defenders and slid the puck up the boards to Marcus Johansson. The young Swede had the presence to know that Brouwer was drifting through the high slot, despite having his back to the play. Johansson hit Brouwer in stride and the veteran ripped a shot past Price for his 19th goal of the season, just three off his career high.
A little later, it was the power play’s turn to light the lamp again. Mike Green found Ovechkin in his “sweet spot” at the left-wing faceoff circle. This time, instead of unleashing his standard one-timer, the captain found Nick Backstrom at the far post for a tip-in which rattled off two posts. After a brief review, the goal stood for Backstrom’s seventh of the campaign.
Ovechkin himself closed the Capitals scoring onslaught in the third period with his 30th of the season with another power play marker. They used the same play that set up the Backstrom goal, with Ribeiro hitting Green at the top of the umbrella, who then fed to Ovi at the left-wing circle. This time, the captain was selfish and ripped the shot past Price to cap the scoring and brought a close to the competitive portion of the evening.
Through the festivities, Holtby was stellar again. Montreal broke up the shutout bid a third of the way through the third period, but the contest was well out of hand by that point. The young netminder has been dominant against Canadian teams and he was no less Saturday night, showing up the favorites of his countrymen time and again.
The Caps are off until Tuesday, when they host the Jets with a three-point lead in the division. Depending on Winnipeg’s result Monday against Buffalo, a win by the Caps Tuesday could clinch the division — and the No. 3 seed that comes with it — and put the Jets playoff hopes in peril.
The Caps have been playing in “elimination mode” pretty much since the first of February, owners of a 23-10-1 record (113 point pace) since Feb. 9 after the awful 2-8-1 start. They’ve lost in regulation just once in the past four weeks and for maybe the first time in the Ovechkin era, they have earned the mantel of “team no one wants to play in the playoffs.”
The Caps still haven’t qualified for the postseason yet, but they took one step closer Saturday night, destroying a very good team on their home ice in quite possibly the most hostile territory in the league. If the Caps can take care of their own business and qualify for the playoffs, with the East as seemingly open as it is, who knows? No one has played better in the past two months.