MONTREAL - After arriving back from Buffalo less than 24 hours earlier, the Canadiens knew they'd have to push extra hard from the get-go if they wanted to have a chance to win on Saturday against the Capitals.
Starting the second game in two nights without getting caught flat-footed is always a challenge, and it's one that gets magnified when you're facing the high-octane offense of the Metropolitan Division-leading Washington Capitals.
And yet that's exactly what the Canadiens did, going toe-to-toe with the Caps and outshooting them 5-4 - including a beautiful scoring chance by Nikita Scherbak - before Alex Galchenyuk gave the hosts the early lead at the 8:35 mark on a slick move that ended with a deft backhander past Philipp Grubauer.
Video: Scherbak's scoring chance wows the crowd
The Habs thought they had doubled their lead when Jonathan Drouin recovered the puck and dished it to Brendan Gallagher in the slot, but the would-be goal was overturned following a coach's challenge on account of offsides. The Caps turned the decision into a turning point and pounced on the chance to swing the momentum back their way.
"We knew playing the back to back, we put a lot of emphasis on the start because the first period is usually the hardest period," outlined No. 11.
Evegeny Kuznetsov capitalized on the Caps' first power play of the night a couple of minutes after Gallagher's goal was called back to square things up, and Tom Wilson would score a pair before the opening 20 were through to give Washington a two-goal lead to start the second.
"Playing teams like this, it's pretty hard to come back when you're down," added Gallagher, who was playing in his 400th career NHL game. "There are just too many scoring chances given up right now. We need to correct these mistakes."
Video: Gallagher on his performance on Saturday vs. WSH
The Canadiens may have been down the rest of the night, but they were never fully out. Jay Beagle padded the Capitals' lead just under five minutes into the second, but Charles Hudon executed a perfect deflection goal as the clock wound down to make it a 4-2 game heading into the third.
Kuznetsov made the Habs pay on the power play for a second time early on in the final frame and TJ Oshie added a sixth tally for the Caps just 3:42 later, but Hudon fired the puck through traffic for his 10th goal of the season and second of the night - making it his third two-goal game of the season in the process. And though Gallagher would add a fourth marker for the Canadiens on the power play late in the third, the damage that started with that first-period momentum swing had already been done.
Video: WSH@MTL: Hudon fires home his second of the night
"It was a tough bounce, the goal didn't get called and they scored right away," lamented Galchenyuk, whose first-period goal was his 17th of the season. "[We] can't give a team with many offensive skill players likes that a chance. We almost came back, but we ran out of time."
Video: WSH@MTL: Galchenyuk dekes and scores on the backhand
The strong start certainly helped the Habs' cause, but in the end, they couldn't stem the tide of a team looking to build on their divisional lead and getting into gear for a run at hockey's ultimate prize.
"It was a great start to the game," described Carey Price, who returned to the crease to make 24 saves after watching Antti Niemi shut out the Sabres the night before. "But ultimately, they had a pretty good second half of that first period and we didn't really recover from it."
Video: WSH@MTL: Price flashes the leather on Vrana's wrister
On this night, Gallagher pinpointed exactly what went wrong for the Habs, and reminded reporters that his team plans on spending the rest of the season trying to rid their game of the errors that cost them.
"Too many power play opportunities, too many shots from the slot, that's just something we need to get a lot better at," concluded Gallagher, who is now just two goals shy of his first 30-goal season. "[We need to] show up to work whenever our next practice day is and start correcting these mistakes."