WASHINGTON – The Washington Capitals are heading to Pittsburgh for the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic fresh off one of their best performances of the season.
Semyon Varlamov made 25 saves -- but few highlight-quality ones because of another strong defensive effort -- and a couple of pretty goals late in the first period proved to be the difference in a 3-0 victory against the Montreal Canadiens at Verizon Center on Tuesday night.
"I thought everybody played really hard and they're committed to what they were doing," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "It is a new way for us to play, but I think we are liking it."
Jay Beagle, Mike Green and Alex Ovechkin scored for the Capitals, who have now won four of their past five contests since an eight-game losing streak. Carey Price made 27 saves, but the Canadiens have now lost seven of nine and remain in eighth place in the Eastern Conference standings.
It was a small measure of revenge for the Capitals, who captured the Presidents' Trophy last season but lost in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in seven games to Montreal.
"At the 10- or 15-minute mark of the first period we were down by a goal and we started to force things," Montreal center Tomas Plekanec said. "We tried to do things on our own and not doing the right things. We're not staying in the game system. Somehow our guys fell apart and we were retreating all game long."
Boudreau decided it was time to install a more defensive-minded system for the Capitals in the midst of the team's long losing skid. At first the losses continued to mount as the team tried to adapt, but his troops have clearly taken to the new philosophy.
The Capitals have now allowed 12 goals in the past seven games since a 7-0 defeat at Madison Square Garden.
"When you change things, if they don't work you're in trouble," Boudreau said. "It was something that we tried that so far has been successful against some pretty good teams and obviously the next team [Pittsburgh] is pretty good too, so we'll see how it works."
Beagle put the Capitals in front with at 16:20 of the first period. He collected the puck behind the net, skated out to the inside edge of the left faceoff circle and backhanded a shot into the top-left corner for his second tally in the past four games.
Green doubled Washington's advantage with 37.5 seconds left in the opening period. Jason Chimera skated to the top of the crease as a decoy and Nicklas Backstrom slipped a backhanded pass behind him to Green, who one-timed the puck past Price as he was falling to the ice.
It was Green's seventh goal of the season and second in the past three games after going 14 contests without one. He logged 28:19 of ice time – the third straight contest with more than 28 minutes and the 13th consecutive game he’s played in with more than 25.
"I think over that stretch when we were losing we really learned how to play a defensive game," Green said. "We weren't scoring goals but now we're starting to get our feel back for scoring. It was important for us to play a 60-minute game – especially against this team because they've been a team this year to come back in the third period and win games. I think it was a good effort by us and it was good to shut them down."
Capitals defenseman Jeff Schultz returned to the lineup after missing nine contests with a broken thumb. Rookie centers Mathieu Perreault (broken nose) and Marcus Johansson (undisclosed) were both out of the lineup for Washington, so the Capitals recalled Keith Aucoin from Hershey of the American Hockey League.
Beagle was the other center playing for one of the injured rookies and he teamed up with Eric Fehr (six shots) and Chimera for a strong game from Washington's third line.
"There's a guy who is making a great bid to stay here," Boudreau said of Beagle, who has now dressed for six of Washington's past seven games after playing only once before that this season. "This is his fourth-year pro and his work ethic is second to none. You keep saying, 'OK is he going to slow down? Is the adrenaline going to wear down?' But he doesn’t and as long as he keeps going – he does the same thing in every practice."
Both teams struggled to generate much offense on the power play in this contest despite plenty of opportunities. The Capitals, who went 1-for-33 with the man advantage against Montreal in the 2010 postseason, were 0-for-8 in this contest while the Canadiens were unsuccessful in five tries.
"I thought we were playing a pretty strong first period then we lost some battles along the boards and that gave [Washington] the first goal and then the second goal [was] a mistake in the neutral zone," Montreal coach Jacques Martin said. "The other factor was too much time in the penalty box. It just drains you. We didn't give up any goals on the power play, [but] in the end some we had some people that were tired."