Leading Men – Heading into Wednesday night’s 3-0 shutout win over the Canadiens in Montreal, the Capitals had owned a lead for just 40 minutes and 49 seconds of the 545 minutes of road hockey they had played since Dale Hunter took over as the team’s coach on Nov. 28.
Taking that winding road back another four games into the waning days of the Bruce Boudreau administration, Washington had owned a lead for just 45 minutes and 12 seconds of its previous 13 road contests, a span of 785 minutes of hockey that started with a Nov. 15 visit to Nashville.
Caps center Mathieu Perreault – playing in front of a throng of friends and family and getting a sweater for the first time in four games – staked the Caps to a 1-0 lead at 4:41 of the first when his wrister from the right circle beat Canadiens goalie Carey Price cleanly.
Less than four minutes later, Caps center Marcus Johansson simultaneously fought off a check and squeezed off a shot that beat Price to double the Washington advantage.
It was the first time the Caps scored as many as two goals in the first period of a road game since Nov. 5 at Long Island, a game that ended in a 5-3 setback for the Caps.
Wednesday’s game also marked just the third time in 21 games this season the Caps had a lead of any kind at the first intermission of a road game, and the first since that aforementioned Nov. 5 game against the Islanders.
By game’s end, the Capitals had held a lead for more time (55 minutes, 19 seconds) in Wednesday’s contest than they had for the 785 minutes of hockey they had played in their previous 13 games on the road.
More importantly, they had the two points needed to nudge them back into the top spot in the Southeast Division.
Back In The Saddle – Making his first start since Dec. 26 and his first appearance since a brief relief stint in Los Angeles on Jan. 9, Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth was simply superb on Wednesday against the Canadiens.
“I just shook his hand,” says Caps center Brooks Laich. “I thought Michal was exceptional. He was a vacuum. He sucked everything in. he made the saves, he covered the rebounds, he kicked things to the corner. He was tremendous. I thought Michal was great.”
Neuvirth stopped all 31 shots he faced to earn his sixth win and his second shutout of the season. Five of Neuvirth’s half dozen career shutouts have come on the road, and each of his last two have come after not starting for at least three previous games.
“I was nervous before the game and obviously I feel rested,” says Neuvirth. “I made a couple big saves and I settled down and I felt great the rest of the way.”
After Tomas Vokoun started three straight games in early December, Neuvirth regained the net on Dec. 15 in Winnipeg and blanked the Jets 1-0 on 26 shots.
Neuvirth’s starting assignment on Wednesday halted a run of 10 straight starts for Vokoun. Two of Neuvirth’s six wins this season have come against Carolina, so he could get a second straight start when the Caps visit Raleigh on Friday.
Vokoun limited the Canes to one goal on 44 shots in a 2-1 Washington win this past Sunday, so he has recent success against the Canes, too.
“I’m pretty happy with my performance tonight,” says Neuvirth. “but Vokie is playing great right now. He has been winning all the hockey games. He’s No. 1. I’m just happy to get a start tonight. I got a big ‘W’ for myself and for the team.”
Perreault got a sweater for just the fourth time in the last 11 games on Wednesday and he also made the most of his opportunity. His goal was his first in nearly three months (since Oct. 22 vs. Detroit) and it turned out to be the second game-winner of his NHL career.
“In front of your family and your friends in Montreal it’s always a good feeling,” exudes Perreault. “It’s my first goal ever here. It was a big goal for us too; it got our team going. I’m pretty happy about it.”
No Surprise – Everyone knew it was coming, and we didn’t have to wait long. Montreal forward Rene Bourque – obtained from Calgary in a trade last week – played in his second game with the Habs on Wednesday. It was Bourque’s egregious elbow to Nicklas Backstrom’s head in a Jan. 3 game between the Capitals and the Flames that has sidelined the Caps’ top pivot since.
The trade to an Eastern Conference club gave the Caps another chance to exact retribution from Bourque, whose actions also drew a five-game suspension from the league.
Caps winger Matt Hendricks challenged Bourque to a bout just 1:15 into the game, and the two went at it.
“There are consequences for all actions,” says Hendricks. “[Bourque] was a great sport about it, too. He knows the game. I’m sure he wanted to get it out of the way as soon as he could.
“I said ‘Let’s go,’” says Hendricks, in recounting the genesis of his fight with Bourque. “That’s kind of how it works.”
Both players got some punches in, and the scrap ended when Bourque wrestled Hendricks to the ice.
“Hendy does a great job for us,” says Laich. “Those are unspoken heroes. They don’t get a lot of the ink but they are guys that teammates respect and guys you want to play with. He steps up and does a great job.
“It goes without saying that everybody knows what’s going on. It gets the guys going. I give him a pat on the back. It’s a great job by Matt Hendricks.”
Special Delivery – One of the reasons for Washington’s ongoing lack of road success in the first half of the 2011-12 season was their special teams performance away from Verizon Center. While the Caps have been strong on both the power play and the penalty kill at home, they have struggled in both situations on the road.
The Caps entered Wednesday’s game ranked 23rd in the league with a 13.6% power play efficiency rate on the road, and they stood 27th in the circuit in road penalty killing with a kill rate of 76%.
Special teams were the fulcrum of Washington’s Wednesday win.
Alex Ovechkin’s power play goal just past the midway point of the match enabled the Caps to increase their lead to 3-0, making it a significant strike at that stage of the game.
More importantly, the Caps killed off all seven Montreal power play chances on the night, including an ultra-rare triple-minor to John Erskine early in the third and a phantom delay of game call on Ovechkin near the midway point of the final frame.
“Especially that six-minute penalty kill,” begins Neuvirth, in lauding the Caps’ shorthanded outfit tonight. “It was a long time. But the guys did an outstanding job blocking shots and play the price, and that’s what it takes to win hockey games sometimes.”
Shooting Blanks – For the 16th straight game, the Capitals were limited to 30 or fewer shots on net. The Caps finished Wednesday’s game with just 16 shots, their single-game low for the 2011-12 season. Montreal doubled up the Caps in shot attempts (72 to 36) and outshot Washington 31-16.
Getting an early two-goal lead and being forced to kill seven minor penalties thereafter had an impact on the shot totals of both teams. The Caps played well defensively at even-strength, limiting the Habs to 21 shots in such situations.
“Tonight it would have been more,” says Hunter of Washington’s low shot total, “but we were killing penalties for half the game. You’re not going to get many when you’re killing penalties; that’s what happened tonight.”
You’ll Get Nothing And Like It – Wednesday’s game marks the second straight shutout for the Capitals at Bell Centre. Last March 26, Braden Holtby blanked the Habs in Montreal to earn a 2-0 win.
Dating back to last March 15, the Caps have not allowed a goal to the Habs in Montreal in the last 156 minutes and 32 seconds of hockey played between the two teams at Bell Centre.
Quick Starts – Perreault’s goal marked the third straight time the Caps have tallied the game’s first goal within the first five minutes in Montreal.
On March 15, 2011 Johansson scored at 1:06 of the first to stake the Caps to a 1-0 lead and Marco Sturm scored at 1:24 of the first 11 days later when the Caps returned to Bell Centre for the second of their two visits in 2010-11.
Washington hasn’t trailed at any point of its last three visits to Bell Centre, and it has led for 137 minutes and 27 seconds of the 180 minutes of hockey it has played against the Habs in those three trips to Montreal.
Letterman's Sweater – Caps winger Troy Brouwer sported an alternate captain’s “A” on his sweater for the first time in his career as a Capital on Wednesday.
By The Numbers – Johansson’s goal gives him 27 points (10 goals, 17 assists) on the season. In 44 games, he has matched his rookie season point total that was achieved in 69 contests … Ovechkin’s goal was his eighth power play goal of the season, one more than he had in 2011-12 … Dennis Wideman led the Caps with 26:25 in ice time. He ranks 17th in the league in average ice time per game at 24:23 … Karl Alzner led the Caps with 6:19 in power play time … No Caps player had more than two shots on net … Laich led the way with four blocked shots … Perreault won all four of his draws on the night … The Capitals took 37 of the game’s 63 face-offs (59%) … For the eighth time in their last 11 games, the Capitals blocked 20 or more shots on the night. The combined for 25 blocked shots against the Habs.