Washington Capitals left wing Alexander Semin (28), of Russia, falls over Montreal Canadiens center Tomas Plekanec (14), of Czech Republic, next to Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price (31) during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Washington, on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2010. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
WASHINGTON - The Washington Capitals are heading to the Winter Classic playing some of their best hockey of the season.
Semyon Varlamov made 25 saves, and Alex Ovechkin was one of three goal scorers for the Capitals in a 3-0 victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night.
Washington will meet the Penguins in Saturday's Winter Classic at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field. The Capitals are 4-0-1 since an eight-game losing streak and have given up only 12 goals in seven games.
They also took over sole possession of first place in the Southeast Division when Boston beat Tampa Bay. Washington has 49 points and a two-point edge over the Lightning.
"We can't get too high now," Washington defenceman Mike Green said. "We have to feel like we have over the last week where we keep building and building and building. We still have a lot to learn, but at least we get to play in a great event like we do Saturday. It'll be exciting."
The Capitals have been more concerned with defence in recent games, and they'll need to worry about it again at the Winter Classic. Pittsburgh has scored 125 goals this season, tied with Colorado for first in the NHL.
"When you change things, if they don't work, you're in trouble," Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said. "It was something we tried that's so far been successful against some pretty good teams. The next team is pretty good, too, so we'll see how it works."
The defence played well in this game. Washington gave up a few good scoring chances early but not much after that, even killing all five of its penalties.
Jay Beagle and Green put the Capitals in front with goals late in the first period. Beagle connected with a spinning, backhander with 3:40 remaining, and Green made it 2-0 with 37.5 seconds left.
Ovechkin sealed the win with an empty-net goal in the final minute of the game.
Varlamov posted his second shutout this season, making a bunch of strong stops early as Montreal recorded the first six shots in the opening seven minutes. The Capitals have posted three shutout wins.
The Canadiens had only three shots in the first period after their initial spurt. The Capitals limited Montreal to six in the third period.
Montreal is in the midst of a seven-game road trip, its longest this season. The Canadiens have lost four of the first five games and will go 17 days without a home game.
Washington topped the Canadiens in the first meeting between the teams since Montreal upset the top-seeded Capitals in the first round of last season's playoffs by winning the final three games.
Beagle gave the Capitals a 1-0 lead in this game with a shot over goalie Carey Price's shoulder. The rookie got a loose puck near the boards, came out front and faked a pass to the left. Beagle quickly spun the other way and beat Price for his second goal.
"I throw a lot of backhand (shots)," Beagle said. "But I don't think (top) shelf like that. I knew that Price was a big goalie, and I just wanted to put it on net and try to get it up."
David Steckel appeared to score for Washington with two minutes left in the period, but the officials waved it off.
Green doubled the lead, taking a nice cross-ice pass from Nicklas Backstrom and beating Price to the short side with 37.5 seconds left in the period.
Backstrom also helped by winning 10 of 12 faceoffs. Steckel took 15 of 22, and Washington won 36 of 52 overall.
The Capitals had a number of good scoring chances but came up empty on eight power plays. Montreal coach Jacques Martin said killing all those penalties hurt his team.
"It just drains (us)," Martin said. "We didn't give any goals on the power plays, (but) in the end, we had some people that were tired."
NOTES: Defenceman Jeff Schultz returned for Washington after missing nine games with a broken right thumb. ... The Capitals went 5-6-3 in December, their first losing month since November 2008. ... The Canadiens acquired D James Wisniewski from the New York Islanders for two draft picks. He will join the team Wednesday. ... Former Capitals forward Jeff Halpern returned to Washington for the first time with the Canadiens.