The first game after the all-star break can be a disjointed, rusty affair as both teams try to find their footing. But the Montreal Canadiens showed much less rust than the Washington Capitals in the first period Tuesday night at Capital One Arena, and their early success made all the difference.
Montreal scored three times in the opening period and rode that early lead to a 5-2 victory over the Capitals, who have lost a season-worst five in a row (0-4-1) and next face a daunting stretch that features four of the best teams in the NHL.
Sam Montembeault stopped 37 of 39 shots for Montreal (21-21-8). Capitals goalie Darcy Kuemper entered in relief of Charlie Lindgren in the first period and made 15 saves, but the Capitals (22-19-7) couldn’t overcome that early deficit in their first game without center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who entered the NHL’s player assistance program Monday.
“Couple bad bounces, and we find ourselves down 3-0,” center Dylan Strome said. “Could never really battle back. I thought we played pretty good in the second and for some of the third, just giving up [untimely] goals. I thought we had some good fight, but doesn’t really matter once you’re down 3-0.”
Washington’s ugly start ended Lindgren’s night just over 13 minutes in — after he gave up three goals on nine shots. Lindgren had little chance on any of the shots that found the back of the net. Nick Suzuki scored the first two just 57 seconds apart, first ripping home a one-timer on a three-on-one after a turnover by winger Nicolas Aube-Kubel and then jumping on a rebound after defenseman Arber Xhekaj’s shot hit the post and careened to Suzuki with an open net to shoot at.
When Michael Pezzetta picked up a deflected puck low in the zone and wristed it past Lindgren to put the Canadiens up 3-0 at 13:07, Washington Coach Spencer Carbery nodded toward Kuemper, who skated to the vacated crease.
“Just change the momentum,” Carbery said of the decision. “The chances that we give up, it’s the same old story. We just make some massive mistakes there that unfortunately for us are just happening to different guys each night. It’s tough. I feel for them because they’re trying, but at the end of the day, in pro hockey, in the National Hockey League, you’ve got to be able to perform if you’re going to be winning games.”
Kuemper stopped the four shots he saw in the final 6:53 of the period, and he had to make just five saves over the next 20 minutes as the Capitals turned the tables. In the first period, Montreal outshot Washington 13-5 and led in shot attempts 17-14. In the second period, the Capitals outshot the Canadiens 16-5 and attempted 37 shots to Montreal’s nine.
But Washington could only solve Montembeault once in the second period. Captain Alex Ovechkin scored his 10th goal of the season at 6:03, converting on a wide-open opportunity he was gifted by Strome’s cross-zone pass. The Capitals had numerous chances to narrow the gap further, most notably on a power play midway through the period.
With Tanner Pearson in the box for high-sticking, Capitals winger Max Pacioretty — who played 10 seasons for Montreal and was the Canadiens’ captain from 2015 to 2018 — had a chance to score with Montembeault well out of position. But defenseman David Savard recovered to block Pacioretty’s shot, which otherwise was headed toward a yawning net.
The Capitals’ recovery from a dismal start gave them a chance heading into the third period, but with them still in a two-goal hole, the odds of a comeback appeared long.
“We’re just a little hair off offensively. We leave a little bit on the table there,” Carbery said. “We’re doing a lot of good things in that second period, but you would like to find a way. With all of that [offensive] zone time … you’d like to come out with more than one. That’s where it’s challenging for us. If you get two or three that period like they get in the first, now we’re cooking.”
After the first period was lopsided in Montreal’s favor and the second was lopsided in Washington’s favor, the third was more of a level playing field, which was not ideal for the Capitals. Juraj Slafkovsky’s goal with 8:41 left, giving Montreal a three-goal lead again, was the dagger for Washington. Kuemper had stopped 14 consecutive shots, but Slafkovsky’s wrister at four-on-four — Anthony Mantha and Johnathan Kovacevic were in the box for roughing — that slipped through defenseman Martin Fehervary’s legs and under Kuemper’s pad sent fans to the exits.
Those who hadn’t headed out early were encouraged by defenseman Rasmus Sandin’s goal just 22 seconds later, but their enthusiasm was short-lived as it became clear it was going to be too little, too late — which Slafkovsky ensured with his second goal of the night, a power-play tally, shortly thereafter.
Up next: games at Florida and Boston before home matchups with Vancouver and Colorado. Each one of those teams offers much more of a challenge than also-ran Montreal.
“We’ve dug ourselves into a bit of a hole here,” Strome said. “Not a great time to lose five in a row.”