On the heels of a disappointing loss to the Boston Bruins two nights prior, the Montreal Canadiens returned with a force on Friday, beating the Washington Capitals 3-2 in the team’s most convincing performance of the season thus far.
The Metropolitan division-leading Capitals were outmatched by the Canadiens on the night. At 5-on-5, Montreal led Washington in shots on goal (16-15), scoring chances (29-22), high dangerous chances (10-6) and Corsi for percentage (56.04%-43.96%). Max Pacioretty scored two goals, giving him six in his past six games, and Antti Niemi stopped 24 of 26 Washington shots to earn his first win of the season.
The embarrassment of Wednesday’s game in Boston weighed on the Canadiens, and the team responded exactly how head coach Claude Julien wanted them to in the U.S. capital.
“It was nice to see us win this game that I really thought that we played well enough to deserve,” said Julien. “There were a lot of good things tonight.”
Canadiens Getting to Work Early
The tone of the game was set early in the first period by linemates Tomas Plekanec, Artturi Lehkonen, and Brendan Gallagher. Just over 30 seconds into the opening frame, Lehkonen picked up his own rebound on a wrist-shot and wrapped around the net feeding Gallagher in front with an empty cage. Gallagher whiffed on the pass and Capitals goalie Philipp Grubauer recovered the puck on the ensuing scramble, but it showed Montreal had come prepared to play this time around.
After a scoreless first period, and a power play goal from each team in the second, the Canadiens out-chanced their opponent 16-9 in the third, and had several grade-A scoring opportunities, but were unable to take advantage until Paul Byron scored his 13th goal of the season, giving his team a 2-1 lead with 10:41 to play.
Overall, Montreal had three shots ring off the goalpost, and two shots hit the crossbar. Pacioretty iced the game at 18:42, scoring an empty-net goal to give the Canadiens a two-goal lead. The captain was irritated by the inability to capitalize, but happy about the strong performance against Washington.
“It was very frustrating. [We had] so many goalposts and so many empty nets,” said Pacioretty. “But altogether a good effort from every line. When we get contribution through the whole lineup, it makes for a fun win.”
The Canadiens were fortunate recipients of a few lucky bounces, as well. Washington hit the post on two separate occasions, while former-Canadien Lars Eller cut the lead to one with 54 seconds left to play, but it was not enough, and Montreal came away with their 19th win of the season.
“They also had a few [shots] hit the post, so that helped us a bit mentally,” said Jonathan Drouin. “When you hit the post often, especially in the third period, it can be frustrating when it’s 1-1 or 2-1. But I don’t think we gave up. It was a big goal to make it 2-1, and same thing for [Pacioretty] to finish the game.”
Niemi’s Top Performance of the Season
In only his fifth appearance with the team Canadiens this season, Niemi had one of his finest games. With a save percentage of 0.923%, the 34-year old who rarely sees action behind starting goalie Carey Price, made several key saves, none more important than a left-pad stop on Tom Wilson 1:51 into the third with the score tied at one.
“[Niemi] works really hard every day in practice and has a great attitude,” said Julien. “Those are the guys you’re really happy for when they get rewarded with a big win like that.”
Capitals’ captain and leading scorer Alexander Ovechkin was held to one assist, one shot on goal, and 2 scoring chances against the Canadiens. In 44 career regular season games versus Montreal, Ovechkin has dominated, scoring 27 goals and 49 points, so limiting his number of chances was crucial for the Canadiens to earn a victory, and Julien was pleased with his team’s performance.
“I think we played extremely well tonight and, for me, that’s five out of six games where we’ve played pretty good hockey and that’s what we have to build on,” said Julien. “We couldn’t let that Boston game affect us tonight.”
The Canadiens will have their chance for revenge against the Bruins right away, as the team heads back to Montreal to face their Atlantic-division rivals on Saturday. Sitting 11 points out of a playoff spot in the division, and nine points out of a wild-card position, the Canadiens hope to build off the momentum of Friday’s win, and use it as motivation against a high-scoring Bruins team.
“We know what we’re able to do against a team like that, said Pacioretty. “They have one of the most dominant lines in the league right now. I think if we force them to play defense, and if we create on the other lines as well, then we give ourselves a chance to win a game.”