Payback: Caps Shutout Habs, 3-0

With each low-scoring victory, the Washington Capitals are looking more like a team that has undergone a transformation that will pay off in April, May and hopefully June. Tonight they defeated the Montreal Canadiens 3-0 at Verizon Center, using two first period goals and a third period empty-netter by Alex Ovechkin to earn their fourth win in the last five games.

Montreal enjoyed two power plays in the first six minutes, a stretch in which they outshot Washington, 6-0. But the Caps came roaring back and outshot the Habs 10-3 for the rest of the period, and scored a pair of highlight-reel goals to take a 2-0 lead into the locker room.

After that they strangled the life out of Montreal’s offense. Semyon Varlamov enjoyed perhaps the easiest shutout of his career as his defense blocked shots, shut down passing lanes and every skater in red commited to stiffling the neutral zone rush. No odd-man rushes against, no blown assignments against and 5-for-5 on the penalty kill.

Some more observations

What happened to the Canadiens from the beginning of this season? They’re now 5-8 in December, and have fallen to eighth place in the East and are under .500 on the road. Oh yeah, this is the same Canadiens the rest of the league saw last season right up until the first round. Give the Capitals credit though – they showed no signs of being phased by Jacques Martin’s gameplan.

Speaking of which, the Canadiens are now 0-11-0 when trailing after the first intermission. Does Martin even have a game plan for when his team falls behind?

Interesting first period for Habs defenseman PK Subban. What was his obsession with Jason Chimera? He knocked Chimera to the ice in the first five minutes then stood over the veteran winger as he got back up. He then went out of his way to take the body on Chimera on a rush, putting himself out of position on the Mike Green goal. No wonder he’s a healthy scratch on many nights.

It’s not easy to get booed when you touch the puck at the Verizon Center unless you’re on the Capitals’ power play or wear No. 87 for the Penguins, but Subban managed to do it.

In December the Capitals’ power play hasn’t been able to do much of anything, and the root cause of the issue is Ovechkin, Alex Semin and Nicklas Backstrom being ice cold. The best thing the unit did tonight in going 0-for-7 was to keep Montreal out of the offensive zone. One day the power play will stop being a momentum-shifter for the Capitals’ opponents. For now, it’s a collection of five fragile psyches on the ice at once.

Thankfully, the young guns are showing signs of breaking out of it. Green scored his second goal in three games. Setting him up was Backstrom on an other-worldly backhanded pass through an airtight seam. Ovechkin has now scored in two straight. Good signs.

Then there’s Semin, who is like a box of chocolates but more frustrating. His line in December: no goals, five assists and 23 penalty minutes (not the good kind). This is classic Semin, the same that Caps fans have seen every year.

It takes guts to change an entire team’s system mid-season, especially during a miserable losing streak. For Bruce Boudreau, it seemed to be a matter of survival of the fittest – adapt or be replaced. But what’s most impressive is not just that he implemented the sysyem when he did. It’s the fact that the team appears to have entirely bought in so quickly and so completely.

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