Washington Capitals left wing Alexander Semin (28), of Russia, battles for the puck against Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban (76) during the first period of an NHL hockey game on Friday, Feb. 24, 2012, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
WASHINGTON - Alex Ovechkin was back on the ice—and he put the puck in the net, too.
Guys such as Jason Chimera, Mathieu Perreault and Joel Ward contributed goals. Goalie Michal Neuvirth allowed only one. And lo and behold, the Washington Capitals actually managed to avoid falling behind early.
Yes, the Capitals were at home, where they are a vastly different team. And yes, they were facing the lowly Montreal Canadiens. Still, what mattered most was that Washington began what could be a pivotal few days for the future of the franchise by beating Montreal 4-1 Friday night to snap a three-game losing streak.
"Our guys try and win. They play hard most nights. We were due for one, maybe. We were due for a good hockey game," Capitals forward Brooks Laich said. "And we got one at a good time."
Given that the Capitals won only one of their past seven games, and four of their past 15—dropping them from first place to third in the Southeast Division, and to 10th in the Eastern Conference entering Friday—they were in need of a strong performance. They delivered against Montreal, which has lost three games in a row, is in last place in the East and isn't exactly playing inspired hockey.
"Taking penalties at bad times. The power play's ineffective. It's frustrating, for sure," Montreal forward Erik Cole said.
On Saturday, Washington plays at the Toronto Maple Leafs—the teams are tied with 65 points, on the outside looking in at a playoff berth. And then on Monday, the NHL trade deadline arrives.
Laich insisted that last part is far from his mind.
"If we were 20 points up on everybody, then we would watch it a little bit," Laich said. "But we've got hockey games to win."
Capitals general manager George McPhee still needs to decide whether he wants to be a buyer or a seller.
McPhee already tried changing coaches this season, firing Bruce Boudreau—who's found success jump-starting his new employer, the Anaheim Ducks—and handing the team over to Dale Hunter.
"Everybody wants to make their team better. But it's somebody else's decision who's going to be traded, who's not," Ovechkin said. "If George is going to do something, I think it's going to be better for our club."
One thing Washington did better Friday was start well.
Some casual defence by the Canadiens allowed Chimera to send a pass across the ice to Perreault, who was pretty much left alone to make it 1-0 at 6:58. That ended a run of six consecutive games in which Washington trailed 1-0—in four of their previous five games, the Capitals fell behind 2-0.
"We talked about it before the game," Neuvirth said. "We needed a good start."
He made 30 saves, although he did allow the first goal Montreal has scored against Washington since March 15, 2011. Rene Bourque's short-handed breakaway goal 3:42 into the third period ended a drought of 260 minutes 14 seconds for the Canadiens against the Capitals, stretching over five games, including three shutouts. Bourque's goal came after Ovechkin turned over the puck.
"A stupid mistake," Ovechkin called it.
He missed Washington's previous game, at Ottawa on Wednesday, with a lower-body injury. As it is, the two-time MVP is having what might wind up as his worst NHL season, with only 25 goals and 21 assists so far. He went into Friday with all of four goals in the preceding month.
But Ovechkin's slapshot from the left circle off Dmitry Orlov's pass got past goalie Carey Price at 8:58 of the second period, while the official scoring for Chimera's breakaway goal still was being announced over the loudspeakers.
Ovechkin dropped a knee to the ice and punched a glove to celebrate.
"He felt good out there," Hunter said.
Asked whether Alex the Great looked 100 per cent fit, Hunter replied: "Oh, yeah. He's good."
After the game, McPhee carried a bag of popcorn as he rode in an elevator from the press box down to the floor where the locker-rooms are. A reporter asked McPhee whether he'd be willing to answer questions.
McPhee smiled, shook his head, then grabbed a handful of popcorn and walked away.
Should be an interesting few days coming up.
NOTES: Bourque was with the Calgary Flames when he was suspended for five games after elbowing Capitals C Nicklas Backstrom in the head Jan. 3. Backstrom hasn't played since. ... Washington RW Mike Knuble was a healthy scratch for the fourth time in the past eight games, and D Roman Hamrlik was held out for the second straight game. ... Ward's empty-netter with 35.1 seconds left was his first goal since Jan. 7.