WASHINGTON – Nicklas Backstrom returned to action almost three months after suffering a concussion, Michal Neuvirth made 39 saves, and the Washington Capitals moved two points ahead of the Buffalo Sabres for eighth place in the Eastern Conference with a 3-2 shootout win over the Montreal Canadiens Saturday in front of 18,506 fans.
While Neuvirth was the star of the action, the main attraction was Backstrom, who was concussed on Jan. 3 via a hit to the head from Rene Bourque, with Calgary at the time. Backstrom skated 19:40, seeing time on the power play’s first unit and generally alongside Alex Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson during five-on-five situations. Backstrom put two shots on net.
“It was good to be back in the game,” Backstrom said. “I got to play the same way that I usually play. I can’t be worried about getting hit again. That’s what I did from the start and it felt all right, but I can be a little bit better.
“My lungs were a little bit tired there.”
Washington goals were scored in the first period by Matthieu Perreault (his 15th of the season) and Jay Beagle (his third). With about 22 seconds left in the first period, Montreal’s Max Pacioretty drove to the net on the left wing around Capitals defenseman Dennis Wideman, creating a scoring chance and eventually a goal for Erik Cole, his 32nd of the year.
“You can’t be doing that,” said Capitals forward Mike Knuble of allowing the late first period goal. “There’s such a big difference between going in leading 2-0 and them getting some momentum late in the period. It’s a huge difference. It just gives them life. Send them in 2-0 … and there’s no energy in the room.”
Montreal’s other goal was scored by Tomas Plekanec (16) in the second period. Shootout goals were scored by Matt Hendricks and Alexander Semin.
Washington controlled the pace of play until Montreal’s first goal, at which point the Canadiens slowly began to take over the game. The Canadiens out-shot the Capitals in the second, third and overtime periods, 32-21. A consistent theme throughout the Capitals’ season is getting out-shot and out-chanced late in games. “We sat back too much again,” Hunter said. “Everybody is puttin’ the big push on here, and you get too careful, and you play into their hands.”
Keeping the Capitals in the game was Neuvirth, who won his second consecutive starts. Capitals head coach Dale Hunter has been shuffling his goaltenders – who include Tomas Vokoun and recently, Braden Holtby – for the majority of the season, primarily going with the hot hand in any given start. With three games left in the regular season, Neuvirth has seemingly become the hot hand.
“I’d say I was happy with my effort tonight,” Neuvirth said. “My teammates…they did an awesome job in the defensive zone. They had 40 shots but they had a lot of shots from the outside.”
Said Hunter about Neuvirth’s play: “Neuvy was first star. He should be. He kept us in the game there. We sat back and gave them some chances. They got a lot of speed on the wings there, and they burned us a few times and he had to come up big.”
Washington now sits alone in eighth place in the Eastern Conference with 88 points and three games left to play – at Tampa Bay Monday night, home Thursday against Southeast-leading Florida, and at New York Saturday to face the Rangers. The Buffalo Sabres are hot on the Capitals’ heels for eighth in the East, sitting in ninth with 86 points and three games left to play. Washington is two points behind Florida, which has four games remaining, with the potential looming that Thursday’s game could be vital as to which team will win the division.
“We haven’t given up on the division,” Capitals forward Brooks Laich said. “It’s going to be a real fun ride here ‘till the end.”