MONTREAL – If there was one thing that was tempering the Washington Capitals' hot streak of late, it was that they had done it largely by facing teams that are in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference.
No one can say that about them anymore.
Alex Ovechkin scored his sixth goal in three games to spark the Capitals and Michal Neuvirth made 27 saves to hold off a late Montreal Canadiens' rally in a 3-2 win at Bell Centre on Tuesday.
The victory was Washington's fifth in a row and sixth in seven games, but all of those were played against teams that are currently out of the playoffs in the conference.
"It's [the] biggest points for us right now," said Ovechkin, who remains tied with Steven Stamkos for the NHL lead in goals at 26. "We beat a team that's in front of us and we can play against good teams."
Eric Fehr and Jack Hillen also scored for the Capitals (21-17-2), who maintained their two-point lead on the Winnipeg Jets – 4-1 winners Tuesday – atop the Southeast Division.
"We played some really tough teams at the start of the year and it was tough for us with that 2-8-1 start," Hillen said, whose first of the season turned out to be the winner. "But maybe it is a good confidence builder to beat a top team. We know we're a good team and we're just going to keep playing well."
Capitals coach Adam Oates did not want to place any more importance on beating a top team like the Canadiens than he did on beating the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday or the Florida Panthers a night earlier. He did acknowledge, however, that holding off a late charge from the Canadiens in a hostile environment like the Bell Centre was good for his team.
"You know they're going to make a push, which they did. Then the building gets electric and it's hard to play here, so it's a great thing for the guys to fight through that and experience that because it's going to help them down the road," Oates said. "You know what? It was an important game because we need the points. We played good. Tomorrow we'll have a meeting, talk about some things and then we'll turn the page because we have Carolina on Thursday. That's the next big game for us."
Lars Eller scored twice and Alex Galchenyuk had two assists for the Canadiens (25-9-5), who lost for just the second time in seven games.
"You can see why that team's doing so well," Canadiens defenseman Francis Bouillon said. "They were skating right from the start and it wasn't easy, we didn't have an easy game tonight. But we need to prepare ourselves because in the playoffs it's going to be even tougher to win games like this. It was a bit of a playoff preview, so we'll need to adjust."
Ovechkin's goal gave him 17 in his past 15 games and his linemate Nicklas Backstrom had two assists to extend his point streak to seven games.
Galchenyuk's two assists extended the rookie's point streak to a season-high four games, with two goals and three assists over that span.
With the Canadiens leading 1-0 in the second period and the Capitals failing to beat Carey Price on their first 14 shots on goal, Washington scored twice on four shots over a span of 1:46 to take control of the game.
"You always lose momentum when that happens, but I thought we responded fairly well after that," Canadiens captain Brian Gionta said. "But when you have a lapse like that, it's tough against a team that's hot like they are that's playing well. It's tough to chase them."
Ovechkin started things off with a masterful move to get around Michael Ryder while cutting across the high slot, then letting go of a wobbler of a wrist shot that appeared to dip severely just as it was reaching Price, flying under his glove at 7:50 of the second.
"I just wanted to shoot the puck," Ovechkin said. "I beat Ryder and I didn't know if there would be traffic in front or not. I know the shot wasn't that hard, but it went in, so it's good."
A Hillen shot from the side boards was then tipped by Fehr on its way toward Price, hitting the Montreal goaltender in the chest and flipping over his head behind him, where it was tipped in by teammate Andrei Markov at 9:36.
Hillen put the Capitals ahead 3-1 at 5:33 of the third when his shot from the point went past an Ovechkin screen in front and beat Price high to the glove side for the defenseman's first goal of the season.
The Canadiens charged back at the Capitals and it paid off at 16:38 when Eller scored his second of the game, tipping home a Nathan Beaulieu point shot to bring the Canadiens within one.
"We still had a couple of minutes after we got that second goal and I think we did all the right things, we put the puck at the net and we put guys at the net," Eller said. "It just didn't bounce our way in the last couple of minutes."
The Capitals came roaring out of the gates in the first, registering the first nine shots on goal of the game and testing Price on repeated occasions with high quality scoring chances. Backstrom was turned aside by two Price pad saves 80 seconds into the game, Mathieu Perreault suffered the same fate about a minute later and Jay Beagle had another great chance off a Nathan Beaulieu turnover just prior to the three-minute mark.
The Canadiens got their first shot at 6:22 off the stick of Rene Bourque – who made his return to the lineup after a 21-game absence due to a concussion – and took over for the remainder of the period, outshooting Washington 7-2 from that point onward.
The pressure paid off at 15:44 when Galchenyuk entered the zone with speed, deked around Capitals defenseman John Carlson and set up Brandon Prust for a shot from the slot. Prust's shot missed the mark, but he gathered the puck behind the net and sent it out front to Eller for his fifth of the season.
The Canadiens continued their territorial advantage to open the second, going from a 9-0 shot deficit to a 15-12 edge before the period was four minutes old.
But it didn't last, with Ovechkin sparking his team to a quick turnaround and ultimately holding on for its fifth straight victory.