Facing a fading Montreal Canadiens team on home ice Thursday night, the Caps were seeking to get back on the beam after losing each of the last two games of a three-game Western road trip. For the first time in seven games, Washington scored first. But it was unable to add to that lead - or to another one-goal advantage later on - and it needed a last-minute desperation goal from Tom Wilson just to force overtime and collect a point.
Ben Chiarot's second goal of the game won it for the visitors at the 58-second mark of overtime, sending the Caps to a 4-3 defeat, their fifth loss in their last six games (1-4-1) both overall and at home. Washington fell to 2-5-1 in the month of February, and it is suddenly only eight points clear of the New York Islanders, the current occupant of sixth place in the Metropolitan Division, a non-playoff spot in the standings.
Less than two months ago - on the morning of Dec. 22 - the Caps owned a 19-point bulge over the sixth-place club in the Metro.
"It's just a continuation of the struggle that we're going through right now," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "We make some strides in certain directions that are positive, and then we fail in other areas. It's no secret; we're going through a struggle right now. We didn't play well enough to be able to get two points really against any team in this league. We need to play better."
Video: Reirden Postgame | February 20
Caps captain Alex Ovechkin - held off the scoresheet for five straight games despite a spate of good scoring chances during that stretch - ended his drought and crept one goal closer to the 700-goal plateau when he scored the game's first goal at 7:29 of the first. Nicklas Backstrom won a left dot draw in Montreal ice, and Ovechkin collected the puck and beat Montreal goaltender Carey Price on the far side to stake the Caps to a 1-0 lead.
Braden Holtby's night was relatively quiet - at least in terms of shot volume - early on. But two of the first three stops he had to make were on breakaways, and he made them both. The Caps played well in spurts throughout the night, but those short stretches were muddied with long stretches of inconsistency against a Montreal team that lugged a five-game losing streak (0-4-1) into the building on Thursday.
"Obviously, we're giving up way too many breakaways," says Backstrom. "Luckily enough, Holtby bailed us out tonight in the first. I think it's not just positioning; it starts with managing the puck.
"We've got to be a little smarter with the puck; you've got to chip it in to one of our guys, not one of their guys. It starts there. We've just got to be a little smarter and obviously it will sort everything out on our breakaways."
Late in the first, Montreal squared the score on a Shea Weber drive through traffic from the right point. Weber's goal made it a 1-1 contest with 2:43 left in the first.
Ovechkin was boxed for cross-checking early in the second, and although the Canadiens didn't score on the ensuing power play, they did wrangle the game's momentum and keep it for themselves for a spell, holding the Caps to one shot on net - a 51-footer from defenseman Nick Jensen - over a span of just over 10 minutes from late in the first to midway through the second period.
In the back half of the middle frame, the Caps again showed signs of life, and they took the lead when their third line - their most consistent forward unit through this most inconsistent stretch of the season - manufactured the go-ahead goal with some diligent forechecking.
Carl Hagelin, Lars Eller and Richard Panik have been better and more consistent than either of Washington's top two units of late, and they were reunited after three games apart while Eller filled in for the injured Evgeny Kuznetsov on the recent road trip.
Hagelin, Eller and Panik did great work around the perimeter of the Montreal zone, maintaining possession as the Habs chased the puck along the side walls and into the corners. One could actually witness the trio anticipating the movement of the puck and each other throughout the shift.
Adroitly using his body to protect the puck, Eller took possession of a Hagelin feed and curled out from behind the Canadiens' cage. Just as he crossed the goal line to the net front, Eller was pokechecked, and the puck popped waist high into the air. Eller swatted it past Price to restore the Caps' cushion at 2-1 with just 2:57 left in the second.
Video: MTL@WSH: Eller bats puck home on wraparound
But the lead was short-lived; Brendan Gallagher scored his 20th of the season just 94 seconds later on a goalmouth scramble, benefiting from a failed clear and some soft coverage in front to make it a 2-2 game headed into the third.
Half a minute into the third, Montreal took its first lead of the night on a Chiarot wrist rocket from the high slot, a shot that went bar-down seconds after Brenden Dillon - playing his first game with the Caps after being acquired from San Jose on Tuesday - briefly had the puck on his stick behind the net. It was 3-2 Habs, but the Caps had almost a whole period to respond.
They needed nearly all of it. With Holtby off for an extra attacker, Wilson punched a rebound of his own shot behind Price to make it a 3-3 game with 20.1 seconds left.
In overtime, the Caps had the puck early and had possession in the attack zone, but could not generate as much as a shot attempt. After Max Domi missed the net, he collected the puck and fed Chiarot for the game-winner on a one-timer from between the circles.
On his first shift of the night, Habs defenseman Xavier Ouellet was lost for the night after taking a hard hit from Garnet Hathaway behind the Montreal net.
"I think the [defense] has played well," says Canadiens coach Claude Julien. "I thought they really handled themselves well at five when we lost Xavier. I thought they did a great job, but also I think our forwards did a great job of coming back and helping tonight."
Down to five blueliners almost right away, the Habs got three of their four goals from defensemen while Washington was unable to exploit the Canadiens' personnel loss with its forecheck.
Video: Postgame | February 20
"They lost a player early in the game," says Reirden, launching into a litany of all that ails the Caps lately. "So it was an emphasis for us to try to forecheck, even more so. But you can have the identity and you can have the roster to play a physical game, but if you're not going to put pucks behind their defense, then it doesn't matter how physical you are. You're not going to get in to cause any turnovers that way.
"When we did that, we had success. When we wanted to try to make plays that weren't there, we turned pucks over and we allowed them to get offense. And then finally, when we did spend time in our [defensive] zone, we have to be way harder around our net. And that continues to be a an issue, and that urgency and that battle level around the net front, that's where - as these games move forward - that's got to improve."