"He kept us in the game," coach Dale Hunter said. "We sat back and gave them some chances and they had a lot of speed on the wings and they burned us a few times. He had to come up big. He had to be sharp. He stepped up when we really needed him."
The Caps' victory, combined with Buffalo's 4-3 loss at Toronto, gives Washington a two-point lead on the Sabres for the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. Washington also moved within two points of Southeast Division leader Florida, which plays its game in hand at Detroit on Sunday. The Caps visit Tampa Bay on Monday, then host Florida on Thursday night before visiting the Rangers next Saturday in their season finale.
Five days after dropping to ninth place after a 5-1 loss to Buffalo, the Caps again control their own fate -- not that they're ready to claim victory.
"The last games [are] going to be very hard," captain Alex Ovechkin said. "Again, teams help us, Toronto beat Buffalo. Next game is going to be very, very important for us and it’s going to be huge for us. We just have to take these points and play for a week."
The Caps welcomed back first-line center Nicklas Backstrom, who hadn't played since suffering a concussion on Jan, 3. Backstrom received a roaring reception when he was the last player introduced in the starting lineup, and even the singer of the Canadian and American national anthems wore a Backstrom No. 19 jersey. The 24-year-old, who is still fifth on the team with 42 points missing nearly three months, took the faceoff that began the game.
"Everyone's pumped," Hunter said. "You get Nicky Backstrom back. There was a lot of excitement in the room."
Backstrom had been out since Jan. 3, when he was elbowed in a game against Calgary by Rene Bourque, who now plays with the Canadiens. Backstrom played nearly 20 minutes Saturday night and won 12 of his 18 faceoffs, though he didn't have a point.
"It was good to be back in the game," Backstrom said. "I got to play the same way that I usually play. I can’t be worried about getting hit again. That's what I did from the start and it felt alright, but I can be a little bit better. My lungs were a little bit tired there."
Erik Cole and Tomas Plekanec scored for the Canadiens, who are last in the East with 73 points, and Budaj made 31 saves.
The Canadiens looked like a last-place team in the early going, giving the Capitals three power plays in the first 14 minutes, including one after Budaj was whistled for playing the puck outside the trapezoid. Washington didn't score on any of the advantages, but the Caps did go ahead at 4:16 when Perreault knocked home the rebound of Semin's shot on a 2-on-1 break.
Beagle made it 2-0 at 16:10 with his third goal of the season, skating in unchecked to tap home a pass from Hendricks.
But just as they did in Boston on Thursday, Washington couldn't hold the two-goal lead.
Montreal made it 2-1 at 19:38 when Cole poked in a rebound, and the Canadiens dominance in the second period was rewarded when Plekanec skated around former teammate Roman Hamrlik and fired a shot over Neuvirth's glove at 14:31.
"The guys worked hard tonight and maybe they deserved a better fate," Montreal coach Randy Cunneyworth said. "We certainly crawled out of the deficit we had and that first goal was a big one, obviously turning the game around for us and getting us going in the right direction."
The Canadiens played with a lot more energy in the second half of a back-to-back than they had in New York on Friday, when they managed just 20 shots in a 4-1 loss to the Rangers.
"Tonight, in the first period we had to kill some penalties and there were some very good battles, good hits going on and everyone was fired up, [ready] to go," Plekanec said. "That first goal, obviously, was a big [thing] to help us to stay in the game."
1 - 0 WSH
2 - 0 WSH
2 - 1 WSH