It would be the third game of the young season for the powerful Capitals and the Canadiens, who are generally favoured to finish in the bottom five of the league. However, it was the Caps coming in with an 0-2-0 record after 3-2 and 5-2 losses, while the Habs had at least claimed a win from their first two games.
Coming into this game, Kaiden Guhle was a game-time decision after being lightly injured in yesterday’s game, but, in the end, he was in the starting lineup – as was Jonathan Drouin, as Rem Pitlick would sit out this one.
It looked good for a little while, and it was never embarrassing, but the Canadiens came up short on this one, too, and fall to 1-2-0 for the season.
One can’t enter the zone before the puck …
Samuel Montembeault made the first save of the night on Nic Dowd at 1:50, finding enough visibility through the net-front traffic to block the shot.
That seemed to energize the bleu, blanc, et rouge, as they began to control the play and took the next five shots on goal, even if they did not appear to be particularly dangerous ones, and Darcy Kuemper was able to turn all five away.
There was some anger amidst that pressure, though, as Dmitry Orlov and Dowd sprinted into the Montreal zone on a two-on-one break, but the key pass across was deftly blocked by a sliding Johnathan Kovacevic to neutralize the play.
The Habs were granted the first man-advantage of the game when Orlov tripped Kirby Dach at 11:05, as the young centre was about to break out of the Habs’ zone with the puck on his stick. Both the first and second power play units managed to get things set up though the Capitals’ penalty killers left few openings. Cole Caufield came closest to putting the puck in the net, but Kuemper managed to block that one, too.
Shortly after the penalty expired, Alexander Ovechkin stole the puck from Caufield in the Caps’ zone, and the Washington group broke in on a three-on-two formation. The puck was subsequently tossed at the net through traffic and off Ovechkin, and Montembeault was unable to spot the puck in time.
However, Martin St. Louis’ coaching team immediately challenged the play as an offside one, and the referees needed less than a minute to confirm that, keeping the score at 0-0 for the time being.
The Capitals had a few more chances in the final minutes of the period, but Montembeault was ready this time, and he kept the door shut.
The shots were 12-8 for the Capitals, and the high-danger chances as well, 4-3. However, neither team was able to show a goal on the scoreboard.
Only two minutes …
… into the second period, and the Habs were the first team on the board. As Montreal was pressing in the Washington zone, Caufield sent the puck back along the left-side boards to Arber Xhekaj.
The big rookie defenceman shot the puck at the end boards to the left of the Capitals’ goal, where Nick Suzuki picked it up, wrapped around to the right, and then back again to the left. On this side there was room, and Suzuki pulled around, away from the post, and whipped the puck into the net past the surprised Kuemper to give the Habs a 1-0 lead.
The Canadiens seemed to find new energy from the goal and were able to get a sequence of shots on Kuemper, though no further scoring.
Conor Sheary tripped Caufield at the six-and-a-half minute mark, but a heads-up play by Chris Wideman gave the Habs a chance to continue the pressure on a delayed penalty. Brendan Gallagher had the best chance, but Kuemper managed to turn away Gallagher’s slap shot.
The play for the second power play opportunity started with the second unit, which had some trouble entering the offensive zone and getting set up, but once set up, they clicked fairly well.
With 25 seconds left, though, Caufield gave the puck away for a second time, and the Capitals, uhh, capitalized on that to create a dangerous shorthanded opportunity. Lars Eller took a shot at the short side, and Dowd then followed up on the other side of the net, but Montembeault was able to stop both.
Just 16 seconds after Sheary returned to the ice, though, Caufield lost the puck again, and it was Sheary that sent the puck to the back of the Habs’ net, tipping a Nick Jensen shot past Montembeault to tie up the game.
The momentum was now all in the Caps’ favour, with the Canadiens hanging on for dear life. And, at 11:43, Anthony Mantha made the inevitable into reality, as his wrist shot from the right face-off circle fooled Montembeault and found the top-left corner of the net. 2-1 Capitals, then.
Less than a minute later, the gathering storm clouds got darker, as Mike Hoffman was called for a weak slash on John Carlson. With players like Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and TJ Oshie, the Washington power play is nothing if not potent.
Ovechkin and company took ten shots in little over a minute, six of them on net – and none blocked – but the tenth one would not be stopped. Montembeault made a save on Oshie’s wrist shot, but the rebound went to his left, too far for him to reach, and Oshie put it in the net for a two-goal lead.
People barely had a chance to catch their collective breath after that power play when Xhekaj, too, got called for slashing, this time against Garnet Hathaway.
This time the Habs’ penalty killers were fully on form, repeatedly breaking apart Washington’s attempts to set up and clearing the puck.
The shot totals were a grimmer 14-5 in this period, and the 4-1 difference in high-danger chances reflects the dominance of the Capitals after the first few minutes of the period.
No third chance?
The Canadiens again exerted early pressure, with the top line of Suzuki, Caufield, and Anderson each recording a shot on Kuemper.
David Savard might well have had one at the 4:40 mark, but his wrist shot caught the end of Kuemper’s stick, deflected onto the crossbar, and stayed out.
Some luck was sent the Habs’ way, too, though, as Dach skated into Kuznetsov, who was standing at the Habs’ blueline, and Dach fell down. Kuznetsov was incredulous that he had been called for kneeing, but such is the fickleness of Lady Luck.
The Canadiens’ first power play unit was strong and got set up properly twice. A few good chances resulted, including Sean Monahan at the side of the net, and a shot off the post by Gallagher, but the scoreboard showed no change.
As the minutes ticked down, the young team’s energy levels and effort remained high, but solid scoring chances eluded them.
With three minutes to go, Guhle shoved Mantha behind Montembeault, and the Washington forward took exception to that. Off came the gloves, and the two big guys tangoed for a bit. There was no TKO decision, but Guhle acquitted himself well in his first NHL fight.
St. Louis tried pulling the goaltender again, as the night before, but the team struggled to get clear possession. Finally, with just over a minute left, Montembeault sprinted for the bench.
The struggle for possession continued, though, and the Caps quickly fed the puck to Ovechkin, to help him pad his career total with an empty-net goal. It was not to be, though, as the Russian veteran hit the right goal post cleanly and the puck deflected safely away.
It was all over, really, bar some last-minute dancing with Gallagher and Dowd.
The Habs outshot the Caps 9-3 in the final frame, but it was too little, too late, and neither team had a high-danger scoring chance in the period.
HW Habs Three Stars
First star: Nick Suzuki (1G, 0 A, 18:02 TOI) scored his first of the season, a back-and-forth wraparound, and was as dangerous as ever, particularly on the power play.
Second Star: Kirby Dach (0 points, 16:14 TOI) was dangerous in the offensive zone, drew an (admittedly lucky) penalty – and went 5-3 in the faceoff circle, his big weakness in previous years.
Third Star: Arber Xhekaj (1A, 3 hits, 3 blocks, 15:05 TOI) was solid, created more chances than he gave up, and scored his first NHL assist. The slashing penalty was a negative, but he has toned down his aggression significantly since pulling on the Habs’ sweater.
Honourable Mention: Samuel Montembeault wasn’t channelling Carey Price (or even Friday night’s Jake Allen) but neither was he Andre Racicot. He made save after save on the power play before Oshie picked up the loose rebound. Certainly, it was a better performance than many people expected from the Habs’ young backup goalie.