It was not about payback.
Payback comes in April. Or May.
It was just a game. In December. And for the Caps, it was a good one.
Washington continued its climb out of its November/December funk, claiming a 3-0 victory over Montreal at Verizon Center on Tuesday night. Semyon Varlamov picked up his sixth win, and second shutout, of the year with 25 saves while out-dueling Carey Price and setting the tone for what turned out to be a solid defensive effort for Washington.
“No, not really. We wanted to beat Montreal because they play Tampa next,” coach Bruce Boudreau said when asked if beating Les Habitantes made the win more special. “We figure if we can beat them then all of a sudden they go down there and are more desperate and hopefully come up with a good couple of games in Florida. No, because if we are sitting here in April and we play whatever team and we don’t have success, it is going to mean nothing and you guys [the press] are going to be all over us again.”
It was the first game against the Canadiens this season after being sunk by Montreal in the playoffs last year. Defenseman Mike Green said some of the players had it marked on their calendars. Yet, there is a distinct difference between hockey played in December and hockey played in April.
Yes, there may have been a familiar feeling at Verizon dating back to last spring when the Habs ousted the supposed Capitals juggernaut from the playoffs. That tends to happen when a large contingent of French-speaking Canadians invade D.C. It was a closely played game with some big shots, great saves and a couple nasty scrums. But what NHL game does not have those elements, day in, day out? (You are excused, New York Islanders.)
Jay Beagle gets the biggest kudos of the night for his behind-the-back backhand, over the shoulder no-look, off the McDonalds sign nothing but net goal in the first period — an Ovechkin like move coming from a very un-Ovechkin-like source. Michael Jordan owes him a cheeseburger or something. For his effort, he was awarded the hard hat given to the hardest worker of the night in the Capitals dressing room and sat at his corner locker fielding questions with a big smile on his face.
“I took a look and two guys kind of came to my forehand and I heard [ Jason Chimera] yelling at my left and [Eric Fehr] crashing to the net and I knew if I threw it on net good things would happen and, huh, it went in,” Beagle said. “First hard hat experience. It fits a little tight.”
Green added some fireworks of his own in the period when he one-timed a perfect cross-ice feed from Nicklas Backstrom passed Price. Overall Green was probably the star of the contest, buzzing around the action through the entirety of his game-high 28:19 of ice time, tallying six shots, one shot attempt blocked, one shot missed, two giveaways, a takeaway and a blocked shot of his own. He was deployed for 4:56 of shorthanded time as Montreal went 0-for-5 on the power play in a game that had 14 combined penalties. The Caps were 0-for-8 on the man-advantage, the one glaring weakness in an otherwise solid effort.
It was an odd looking win for a team that is supposed to be one of the top scoring units in the league. Washington entered Tuesday 10th in the NHL in scoring at 2.95 goals per game, on pace for approximately 242 goals, or 71 less than it scored last year. This game looked like something you might find from New Jersey or Boston teams of years past — get a lead and patiently chip the other team away. The Capitals went up two goals after a great spurt in the final 12 minutes of the first period and came out for the second and third and played solid, defensive hockey.
Yeah. The Capitals. Defensive hockey. Something is a little off here . . .
“We have been in a lot of these situations,” Boudreau said. “We just experienced it against Carolina. We knew the team was down two goals and we allowed a goal in the first 30 seconds, so, it was a cheap lesson to learn. But I thought we were pretty strong in the third period.”
Montreal may have had 25 shots on Varlamov, but no way did they have more than a few good scoring chances. Considering the up-and-down style that Boudreau likes to play, it is odd to see the Washington play that style.
“I think over that stretch when we were losing we really learned how to play a defensive game,” Green said about lessons learned coming out of the losing streak. “We weren’t scoring goals but now we are starting to get our feel back for scoring. It is important for us to play a 60-minute game because this team, they’ve been the team this year to come back in the third period and win games. So, it was a good effort from us to come back and shut them down.”
Boudreau was satisfied with the effort and the results, acknowledging that it is indeed a new way for the Caps to play.
“I was really pleased. I thought that everybody played really hard. They were committed to what they were doing. It is a new way for us to play, but we are liking it,” Boudreau said.
To be fair, Montreal is not exactly a utopia of scoring these days. The Habs have scored eight goals in their last five games and are 2-9-0 in their last 11 games, ceding first place in the Northeast to Boston for the first time all year. But, for all the bafflement that sometimes is the game-handling of Boudreau, the switch away from counterattack to sit-back-and-trap is a welcome one. Well, as long as the Caps remember how to play the up and down game when the time is appropriate. A bilateral threat of scoring prowess mixed with solid defensive tendencies would make Washington a hard team to stop and look an awful lot like the Red Wings most recent Stanley Cup winning teams. It might be a stretch but Boudreau may have stumbled on something here.
“When you changes things, if they don’t work, you are in trouble,” Boudreau said. “It was something we tried that so far has been successful against some pretty good teams. The next team is pretty good too, so, we will see how it works.”