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Points remain to be proven for Capitals, Canadiens

by Arpon Basu

MONTREAL -- Each team felt it had something to prove, and it can be argued neither of them succeeded.

When the Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens, the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, played for the first time this season at Bell Centre on Thursday, there were question marks following each of them in spite of their lofty positions in the standings.

For the Capitals, their five regulation losses entering the game had come against what many would consider the stiffest competition on their schedule to date. Losses to the San Jose Sharks, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings and Dallas Stars almost overshadowed their 17 wins.

The Capitals made it 18 wins Thursday with a 3-2 victory against the Canadiens, beating the team that entered the game atop the NHL standings in their building.

So that should put the idea that the Capitals can't beat a top team to rest, right? Wrong.

"It was probably the most solemn win that we've had this year," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "No one was satisfied with our performance, really."

Aside from goalie Braden Holtby, the Capitals didn't have much to be proud about Thursday.

They were out-shot 35-19. The Canadiens attempted 73 shots in all situations to the Capitals' 43. It was 56-33 for the Canadiens in 5-on-5 shot attempts.

It was ugly, but it was a win against a top team, so point proven.

Kind of, according to Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner.

"We didn't win against Dallas, we didn't win against the Rangers, and you need to get some confidence by beating those teams because you're going to face them at some point down the line in the (Stanley Cup) Playoffs," Alzner said. "So we're pretty happy that we could kind of prove something."

On the Canadiens side, they want to prove they'll be able to come out of the long-term absence of goaltender Carey Price relatively unscathed, that their strong team play can overcome the loss of their unquestioned best player.

Did they prove it? Kind of.

"I can't remember the last time we played in the offensive zone that much and created that many opportunities and had that many chances to score," Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty said. "[Holtby] is a great goalie. He made big saves early and that gives him the confidence to keep doing that.

"That's just the way it goes sometimes. I don't really have an answer for that."

The way the Capitals won Thursday was remarkably similar to what the Canadiens have done to opponents on a regular basis with Price in net. Except this time he wasn't and they lost, which puts the emphasis back on the fact Price is not around for the next six weeks because of a lower-body injury.

"They just played faster," Trotz said of the Canadiens. "They won all the races; chances are probably 2-1 [for the Canadiens]. Holtby gave us a chance to steal that game and he did. And you've seen that in this rink with Carey Price many times too. So that was just our turn, I think."

The Canadiens could not find much fault with how they played, and even the performance of Mike Condon in goal can't be overly criticized. Two of the three goals he allowed, both by T.J. Oshie, came off somewhat unlucky bounces. One shot hit him in the shoulder, popped high in the air, hit Condon's back and went in, while the other was tipped by Oshie in the slot and left Condon little chance.

But at the other end of the rink, Holtby was putting on a show reminiscent of Price.

"I thought he played a phenomenal game," Condon said of Holtby. "We had a ton of grade-A scoring chances against him and he played a phenomenal game. The score could have easily been … 7-3. But he kept us at bay and was a big reason why they won."

So where does that leave the Capitals and Canadiens? Status quo?

Not exactly.

The Capitals finish their three-game road trip at the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday feeling confident they can put forth less than their best effort and come away with two points, largely because they have one of the best goaltenders in the world. Which is a comforting feeling.

"If there's a bad way to win, that's the way to win," Alzner said. "But we're happy right now and that's important."

The Canadiens, who play at the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday, can take solace in knowing they thoroughly dominated one of the best teams in the NHL for most of the game, and if they were facing practically any other goalie they would have won handily.

"It's tough to say much negative because I really liked our game," Pacioretty said. "I thought we generated a lot. It seemed like we played in their zone forever."

So maybe the Capitals and Canadiens did prove a point, one each can build on moving forward and one that contributes greatly to their confidence.

It just wasn't as emphatic as they would have liked.

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