The Canadiens arrived in Washington, DC, riding an unenviable 2-7-1 record in their last ten games, and on a season-high four-game losing streak, having been manhandled by the Avalanche, Stars, Lightning, and Panthers. The Capitals would likely not present any easier opposition, though, with an 8-1-1 record in those same ten games. Would Martin St. Louis be able to make some effective adjustments or could Jake Allen be able to hold down a Washington onslaught?
First, we need an earlier wake-up call
The early results indicated otherwise, as Erik Gustafsson took advantage of a fumbled Joel Edmundson clearing play to lift the puck over Allen and into the top corner of the net for yet another early lead against the Canadiens. And exactly four minutes later, Aliaksei Protas threw the puck at the net from the top of the right circle, and it bounced in off Garnet Hathaway, who was parked in front of Allen.
That was just the fifth shot for the Capitals, but the play was all Washington, as the Habs could not sustain possession for any length of time.
Eight minutes in, the Canadiens finally had their first dangerous-looking opportunity, as Nick Suzuki broke in on a pass from Jordan Harris, trying to deke out Charlie Lindgren, but the former Canadiens goalie got his pad out to block the backhand shot. Cole Caufield had a chance with the rebound, but Lindgren snatched that with his trapper.
The Capitals secured the first power play of the game at 11:40, as Josh Anderson was caught slashing Joe Snively on a three-on-three Washington rush. In contrast with some of the recent games, the Habs’ penalty kill was effective this time. After some early Washington control, the penalty killers were able to snatch the puck – from Alexander Ovechkin, no less – and clear the zone, and the Capitals were unable to apply any sustained attack on the man advantage. A single shot on net and no high-danger chances: scratch one for Montreal’s penalty kill on this one.
With about five minutes still in the period, Lars Eller – another former Hab – checked Brendan Gallagher in the left corner, in what looked to be a fairly innocuous hit. Gallagher fell awkwardly, though, and skated back to the bench, favouring his left leg. After smashing his stick on the boards, Gallagher headed to the locker room for treatment and did not return for the rest of the period.
The Canadiens had one last flurry at the end of the period, with the top line slipping through the Capitals’ defence. Kirby Dach skated across the front of the Washington net with about 30 seconds remaining, but could not tuck the puck in, nor could Caufield do the same with the rebound. Harris, Suzuki, and Caufield managed to get shots on Lindgren in those dying seconds, but to no avail.
Montreal prevailed 13-9 on shots on goal and 5-4 on high-danger scoring chances, but in the numbers that really matter, it was a stark 2-0 Washington lead at the first intermission.
Two goals are not enough
Joel Armia sent Michael Pezzetta on a break with a long pass two minutes into the second period, but Matt Irwin took Pezzetta out with a solid but clean open-ice hit. Armia followed up with a promising scoring chance just five seconds later but his shot could not find the net, so the big Finn remains scoreless for the season.
Christian Dvorak and Martin Fehervary were sent off for coincidental minors as Fehervary hooked Dvorak, and the Montreal centre then held Fehervary’s stick under his arm, leading the referee to call them both. The Capitals nearly capitalized (duh) on this early, as Gustafsson slipped a puck under Allen’s arm, but as it fell through, it dropped just wide of the net. And after just 24 seconds of four-on-four play, Eller high-sticked Edmundson, giving Montreal a four-on-three power play opportunity.
This time there was no opportunity lost, as Dach spotted Suzuki skating in from the Washington blue line on the right side. Suzuki moved in, drawing the attention of the Washington penalty killers, but he got off a quick pass to Caufield on the left side of the net, and the young sniper made no mistake in lifting the puck over Lindgren and into the net, to get the Habs back within a goal.
Drouin and Anderson led some Habs pressure as the penalties expired, but Lindgren made three solid saves to fend them off.
At 8:31, it was back to the Capitals, as Protas streaked in on the left side and took a wrist shot. Nic Dowd was unattended in front of Allen and tapped the puck in to restore the two-goal lead for Washington. And just 35 seconds later, Harris and Suzuki misplayed a simple passing play at the Montreal blue line, allowing the Capitals to roll in on a tic-tac-toe attack that resulted in Ovechkin scoring a one-timer from the left faceoff circle, as Caufield neglected to cover his mark.
Four minutes later, the Canadiens finally got some results for their efforts as Caufield intercepted an Eller pass just outside the Washington zone. He skated in all alone on Lindgren, and beat the Washington goaltender cleanly with a shot through the five-hole, cutting the Capitals’ lead to two. And once the puck was dropped at centre ice, Caufield had two solid opportunities to turn his two goals into a hat trick, but while the shots looked good, neither was on goal.
Chris Wideman was sent off for holding Dowd with 2:19 left in the period. The result was no surprise, although it wasn’t Ovechkin scoring this time. Rather, Dylan Strome flipped in a rebound from a pass that Johnathan Kovacevic had blocked, extending the Washington lead to three goals.
The shots in the second were 13-12 for Washington, but high-danger chances still favoured Montreal 7-6. However, the Capitals still extended their lead.
The final bloodbath
Enough, thought the Habs fans as the final period of 2022 loomed, but the Capitals had New Year’s Eve fireworks in mind. And they struck early again, the Caps on a well-controlled rush, and then getting the puck back to Ovechkin at the top of the left circle. The Russian veteran shot a hard one-timer that beat Allen cleanly, next to the right post, to make it a 6-2 game.
Marcus Johansson and Evgeny Kuznetsov spent some of their free time skating circles around the Habs’ defence some four minutes later, literally doing laps of the Montreal defensive zone. Kuznetsov eventually passed the puck to Johansson, who was waiting to the left of Allen, and made no mistake in one-timing the puck into the net. 7-2, then, that matched the score of the Fiasco in Florida.
The closest the Canadiens got to scoring in the third was on a set piece from an offensive faceoff around the 11-minute mark. Christian Dvorak won the faceoff and got the puck to Harris, who one-timed it at the net. The shot was blocked, but Gallagher took control of the rebound, and only an extreme stretch enabled Lindgren to make a pad save.
Then it was back to the usual program, and Johansson celebrated his second goal, the result of a failed clearing pass from the Habs zone. However, St. Louis was not yet in a party mood, and successfully challenged the goal: the puck had crossed the blue line before it was sent back in.
The challenge was for naught, though, as Anthony Mantha broke in some 40 seconds later, scoring unassisted to make it an 8-2 game – and less than a minute later, it was Ovechkin again, completing a hat trick to finalize a thoroughly embarrassing 9-2 final score.
Shots were 16-8 for Washington in the final frame, and high-danger chances 6-2.
HW Habs Three Stars
First Star: Cole Caufield (2g, 0a, 4 shots, +0, 15:52 TOI) scored his 20th and 21st goals of the season, and it’s not often that we see that before the halfway point of a season – at least not for a player wearing a Habs uniform.
Second Star: Kirby Dach (0g, 1a, 4 shots, +0, 14:13 TOI) looked great again playing wing with Caufield and Suzuki. Whatever his future role will be, he is clearly top-six calibre and the Habs can count this trade as a clear win.
Third Star: Jake Evans (0g, 0a, 1 shot, -2, 10:43 TOI) showed the kind of effort and energy that we have come to expect from him. His shorthanded breakaway could have, would have, maybe should have gone in and changed the tenor of the game, but his play, in an atrocious game, was solid nevertheless.
Honourable Mention: Jonathan Drouin (0g, 0a, -2, 13;54 TOI) is still snake-bitten, but he created multiple opportunities in the offensive zone – and won 7 of 13 faceoffs, playing centre.