Montreal Canadiens right wing Brad Staubitz (25) argues with Washington Capitals defenseman Mike Green (52) and Washington Capitals goalie Michal Neuvirth (30) during the second period of an NHL hockey game on Saturday, March 31, 2012 in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
WASHINGTON - Blow a two-goal lead, win in the shootout for the second game in a row.
But this one was different for the Washington Capitals, if only because Nicklas Backstrom was on the ice.
Welcome back, Backstrom, just in time for the crucial games that will determine if the Capitals make the playoffs.
Washington's best player over the first half of the season returned Saturday night after 40 games away due to a concussion, and he won 12 of his 18 faceoffs and provided an immeasurable psychological boost in a 3-2 shootout win over the Montreal Canadiens.
"He's one of those guys that lightens the room up," Washington forward Troy Brouwer said. "He's very well-liked by everybody on the team and you always have a good time when you're with him, so whenever you get to see him back—plus the smile on his face, how he's been feeling and acting around the room the last couple days, knowing he was going to play tonight—it's a big pick-up."
The win, coupled with Buffalo's 4-3 loss to Toronto, moved the eighth-place Capitals two points clear of the ninth-place Sabres with three games to play in the regular season.
Washington also moved within two points of Southeast Division leader Florida.
But if there's a worrying trend for the Capitals, it comes from the fact that they essentially put on a repeat performance from Thursday, when they also lost a 2-0 lead at Boston before getting a 3-2 shootout win.
"Two leads the last two games," Washington defenceman Dennis Wideman said. "We have to find a way to keep pushing and keep pressing and not letting teams back in the game."
Michal Neuvirth, making a bid to be the post-season starter, had 39 saves for the Capitals, including one that hit him in the mask and left him flat on his back late in the second period. He also kept his net clean in the shootout, stopping David Desharnais' attempt and standing his ground as Max Pacioretty missed wide.
Matt Hendricks and Alexander Semin scored in the shootout for the Capitals, and Mathieu Perreault and Jay Beagle scored first-period goals.
But the main attraction was Backstrom.
The top-line centre received a roaring reception when he was the last player introduced in the starting lineups, and even the singer of the Canadian and American national anthems wore a Backstrom No. 19 jersey.
The 24-year-old forward, who is fifth on the team with 42 points despite all the games he missed, then took the faceoff that began the game.
Backstrom had been out since Jan. 3, when he was elbowed in a game against Calgary by Rene Bourque, who now plays with the Canadiens. Backstrom played nearly 20 minutes Saturday night.
"I've got to play the same way that I usually play," Backstrom said. "I can't be worried about getting hit again, and that's what I did from the start and it felt all right, but I can be a little bit better. My lungs were a little tired there after a while."
Erik Cole and Tomas Plekanec scored for the Canadiens, who have lost four straight. Peter Budaj made 31 saves.
The Canadiens are the worst team in the East, and they looked like it early. They gave the Capitals three power plays in the first 14 minutes, including one after Budaj was whistled for playing the puck outside the trapezoid behind the net.
The Capitals didn't convert any of those man-advantage chances, but they scored with a pair of easy odd-man rushes. On a two-on-one, Semin had his shot saved but corralled the rebound and passed to trailer Perreault for the goal. Beagle made it 2-0 with his third goal of the season, skating in unmarked to tap in a pass from Hendricks.
But Washington again found a way to lose the lead. Montreal cut it to one in the final minute of the period when Cole poked in a rebound, and the Canadiens' assertive play in the second period was rewarded when Plekanec skated around defenceman Roman Hamrlik to put a shot over Neuvirth's glove.
"The guys worked hard tonight and they deserved maybe a better fate," Montreal coach Randy Cunneyworth said. "We certainly crawled out of the deficit we had and the first goal (by Cole) was a big one, obviously turning the game around for us and getting us going in the right direction. ... I liked the effort overall."
Notes: Canadiens C Petteri Nokelainen left the game in the second period with an upper body injury. ... The Capitals placed D John Erskine on injured reserve with a lower body injury. He hasn't played since Feb. 12. ... The Capitals have won six straight over Montreal.
Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP