MONTREAL – Bruce Boudreau spoke Saturday morning about his Washington Capitals arriving in a potential hornet's nest, with the Montreal Canadiens coming off an embarrassing 7-0 loss in Boston and wanting to prove something to their legion of loyal fans.
But little did Boudreau know then that by the end of a 2-0 win by his team Saturday night, it would be the Canadiens sitting in that hornet's nest, getting booed off the ice by those very same fans.
The crowd's enthusiasm shifted just 1:29 into the game when Marco Sturm scored for the first time as a Washington Capital, and it continued to turn against the home team as the game went on, resulting in a rousing crescendo of boos by the time the Canadiens had been shut out in a third straight game for the first time in 62 years.
"We knew everything that's transpired in the last three days, and we talked about it all day," said Boudreau, whose team was on the wrong end of the same 2-0 score in Ottawa one night earlier. "I think (the Capitals) were pretty determined, they weren't very happy with what happened last night. So when Marco got that goal it took a lot off our shoulders because we didn't score the last game. But we were hoping to keep them off the scoresheet as long as possible, because it's frustrating when you're playing at home and you're trying so hard and it doesn't work."
The Canadiens haven't been shut out in three straight games since October 23, 27 and 29, 1949. Montreal has won 18 Stanley Cups since that date.
And as frustrated as the fans are with the current state of affairs, the Canadiens players are feeling the same thing, and more.
"They have every right," Scott Gomez said of the booing, himself a target of some of that negative attention of late. "They're the best fans in the world, it's an honor to play here. They're going to let you know it, and as a hockey player you love that. If you do something well they'll let you know it, and if you do something bad they'll let you know it. We've got to do better for our fans."
Sturm's first-period goal provided all the offence rookie goalie Braden Holtby would need for his second career shutout, making 18 saves and appearing calm throughout in spite of arriving in Montreal at 2 a.m. Saturday morning after a last-minute call-up.
"He did a great job because he looked like he was in control," Boudreau said. "He gave the team a lot of confidence."
The surging Capitals (44-22-10) won for the 12th time in 14 games, and they are on the verge of welcoming back the injured Alex Ovechkin and Jason Arnott to the lineup as Boudreau suggested Saturday morning they could be ready to practice on Monday.
Alexander Semin added the insurance goal late in the third period on Nicklas Backstrom's second assist of the game.
The win allowed Washington to keep pace with the Philadelphia Flyers in the race for first place in the Eastern Conference, still sitting two points back but with the Flyers holding two games in hand, and it provided further evidence that the philosophical shift of last year's run and gun Caps to this year's defensively sound version has fully taken hold.
"For most of them, it's now fun to win by not allowing the other team to score whereas last year it was fun to win because we scored six goals," Boudreau said. "But if we went up 5-1 and wound winning 6-4, they wouldn't get upset about it. Now they get upset when we get scored on. So it's a big difference."
Conversely, the Canadiens (40-29-7) have gone from sitting rather comfortably in sixth place in the Eastern Conference to potentially dropping to eighth by losing three straight and four of their last five.
The Buffalo Sabres 2-0 win over the New Jersey Devils drew them to within two points of Montreal with a game in hand. The Canadiens remain in sixth place even though they are tied with New York at 87 points because they hold the tiebreaker with more regulation time and overtime wins.
But that positioning is now tenuous, at best.
"Let's forget about who's ahead of us or who's behind us," Gomez said. "We've got to worry about ourselves and we've got to come out the next game and treat it like a Game 7."
The lackluster offensive performance wasted a fine outing by Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, who made 31 saves and kept his team in the game throughout, being voted the game's first star by the fans as a reward.
"We're right there, though, I don't think we need to panic just yet," Price said. "We just need to get back to the fundamentals and do what every time does when they struggle scoring, and that's getting bodies to the front of the net and simply throwing everything at the net. That's all that matters now -- just get things towards the net and try to get two or three bodies yet. We'll get through this. I'm not worried one bit."
Coming off a 2-0 loss at home to Buffalo and a 7-0 thumping in Boston on Thursday, the Canadiens did the exact opposite of what Price was suggesting by getting a season-low 18 shots on goal. And by being shutout for a ninth time this season, the Canadiens matched a franchise record that has happened five other times, most recently in 2000-01.
The problems that have plagued Montreal offensively of late were on full display in this game – a lack of net presence and a serious lack of discipline.
However, credit should also be given to the defensively-sound Capitals, who kept the Canadiens on the perimeter and made life relatively easy on Holtby.
The Capitals got the goal they needed right off the bat when Backstrom took the first shot of the game on Price and the rebound went right in front to Sturm, who batted it in for his fifth of the season and his first in 13 games in a Washington uniform.
While attempting to mount some sort of offense, the Canadiens continuously shot themselves in the foot by taking three penalties in the first period alone.
"I don't think we're playing very well in a number of areas," said Mike Cammalleri. "Our discipline throughout our team, and discipline can mean a lot of different things, but it starts with taking penalties, first and foremost. It's a tough way to play when we start all these games taxing ourselves shorthanded."
Backstrom set up another goal for Washington at 16:19 of the third when he pounced on a Brent Sopel turnover in the neutral zone and set up Semin for his 26th of the season to snap a seven-game goal drought.
Montreal failed to click on any of its own three power play chances, including one with 3:11 to play in regulation where Price was pulled for an extra attacker, but the Canadiens could only get one shot on Holtby.
And as they tried in vain to avoid matching a record of futility in the long and storied history of the franchise, the Canadiens were booed off the ice by those that remained out of the sellout Bell Centre crowd of 21,273.
"Nobody wants to come to the game and not see anything," Price said. "It's definitely warranted, for sure. Nobody's having much fun right now."