MONTREAL – The striking change in philosophy the Washington Capitals have undergone in just over a year was on full display Wednesday night at the Bell Centre.
Leading 2-0 after Mathieu Perreault and Marcus Johansson scored on two of the Capitals' first four shots on goal, Washington went into full lockdown mode, registering just 12 shots over the next 51:37 for a season-low total of 16 but insulating Michal Neuvirth for a 31-save, 3-0 shutout of the Montreal Canadiens.
The Capitals of old under Bruce Boudreau would never dream of taking their foot off the gas. But Dale Hunter's Capitals are a completely different animal.
"We became more conservative last year in December under Bruce and we had some success at the end of the year then lost in the playoffs," forward Mike Knuble said.
"This year, Dale is a big believer in being conservative. If you don't have a play and you're not 100 percent sure, then live to battle another day. So there's no inherent pressure to be offensive or force things ... Bruce was a big offensive guy, there's no doubting that. He pushed the offense a lot. Dale's thing is if we're good enough defensively you'll create your chances."
They were certainly good enough defensively against the Canadiens despite being outshot 31-16. The Capitals blocked 25 shots and the ones that got through were generally seen by Neuvirth, making his first start in 11 games dating back to Dec. 26.
"With a two-goal lead, you don't really have to score any more goals," Johansson said, a comment that would have been unthinkable a little more than a year ago. "That's the main priority."
No credit should be taken away from Neuvirth for his second shutout of the season, because his rebound control was so good the Canadiens hardly got any second opportunities, a big reason Montreal was 0-for-7 on the power play.
"Their goaltender was very sharp," Canadiens coach Randy Cunneyworth said. "The shots we did take were absorbed by him, there weren't too many loose pucks. The ones that were loose, we couldn't get to because they did a great job in front."
Alex Ovechkin added some insurance on the power play for the Capitals (25-18-2), who won for the fourth time in five games.
But it was just Washington's second win on the road in their last seven, a good way to kick off a stretch of six of seven away from the friendly confines of Verizon Center. The caveat is that both of those road wins came against teams (Montreal and Columbus) that are far outside of the playoff picture.
Speaking of the Canadiens' (17-21-8) playoff chances, they took a massive hit with this loss. Montreal is a long way from a playoff spot in 12th place, 10 points behind Florida and a playoff position. The Islanders, Lightning and the last-place Hurricanes are all just two points behind.
Montreal now travels to Pittsburgh and Toronto for games on Friday and Saturday, and anything less than four points from that trip makes a fifth straight playoff appearance for the Canadiens a lot more unlikely than it already is.
"We're not going to give up hope, we're not going to give up believing," said defenseman Josh Gorges. "It's tough right now because we needed these two points tonight. But we'll have to learn from this tonight, forget about it tomorrow and come back to work. We've got a huge weekend ahead of us and we're going to need to do anything we can to get points this weekend."
The pregame drama surrounding Rene Bourque facing the Capitals for the first time since his elbow to the head of Nicklas Backstrom shelved the Washington star on Jan. 3 took only nine seconds to be resolved.
That's how long Bourque was on the ice before he was invited to go by Matt Hendricks at 1:15 of the first period, and the two engaged in a spirited tilt in which Bourque emerged a pretty clear winner.
"I didn't want to be dealing with it all game, so I wanted to get it out of the way early. He challenged me right away, I expected that. As soon as I got on the ice I could hear him calling me and you know what? Just step up to the plate there."
Capitals forward Troy Brouwer had expressed his dismay after Backstrom was hurt that the Caps wouldn't see Bourque again this season, and he was pleased with how Hendricks handled the situation.
"When you do something like that and get suspended for five games, you have to accept there will be some repercussions," Brouwer said. "It's not like we were focusing on it all day before the game, but the opportunity was there and (Hendricks) stepped up and did a great job."
Bourque later had a chance to really enrage the Capitals when he took advantage of a Dmitry Orlov turnover in the second period to go in alone on Neuvirth with a chance to cut a 2-0 deficit in half, but his quick wrist shot rang off the post.
That 2-0 lead for the Capitals came on the first four shots faced by Canadiens goalie Carey Price.
Perreault, a native of nearby Drummondville, Que., opened the scoring at 4:41 on a clever shot, toe-dragging it before shooting it through Gorges' legs and past Price's blocker for his fourth of the season.
Johansson made it 2-0 at 8:23 when he fought off an Andrei Kostitsyn check and flipped a weak one past Price's left elbow on a shot the Montreal goaltender really should have had.
The Capitals needed about 10 minutes to get another shot on goal, which would be their fifth and final shot of the period.
After Bourque's goalpost on his breakaway, Mathieu Darche took a double minor for high-sticking and Ovechkin took advantage to score his 19th of the season on a low point shot past a Brouwer screen at 10:44 of the second, making it 3-0.
Montreal's 30th-ranked power play was handed a golden opportunity by John Erskine when the seldom-used Capitals defenseman took three penalties on the same shift early in the third, with all three drawn by Darche. Erskine was going to be called on a delayed penalty for elbowing when his stick came up and drew blood on Darche's chin, sending the Canadiens on the power for six minutes at 2:34 of the third.
But Montreal managed just four shots on goal on the extended power play, which was interrupted by an interference penalty by Max Pacioretty when the Capitals got an odd-man rush shorthanded.
Less than a minute after the third power play expired, Ovechkin was called for delay of game at 9:23 of the third. On one sequence of the power play two of Washington's penalty killers lost their sticks at once, but the Canadiens still couldn't convert with P.K. Subban shooting one wide and Pacioretty shooting another one that deflected out of play. On the day, Montreal went 0 for 7 on the man advantage.
"I'm a little bit frustrated, for sure, mostly with the power play," said Cunneyworth, whose record behind the Canadiens bench fell to 4-9-1. "It's largely my responsibility and I need to see better results there. We have to work at it a little harder."