The Montreal Canadiens had been a perfect 11-0 against the Southeast division, the NHL’s 97-pound weakling.
It was unreasonable to think they would run the table.
For a time in the waning moments on Tuesday night against the Washington Capitals, it certainly looked as if they might erase a two-goal deficit to knot the game at 3-3, but Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth wanted none of it, stoning countryman Tomas Plekanec with just a couple of ticks on the clock to secure a 3-2 win.
So the Habs’ string against the Southeast is no more, as is their modest two-game winning streak. The Caps meanwhile have won five straight and kept their noses ahead of the Winnipeg Jets in the race for the division crown.
Almost inevitably, Washington was spurred by an individual act of wizardry from their captain, Alex Ovechkin, who scored his 17 goal in the last 15 games.
With Washington down 1-0 in the second period, Ovechkin scooped up a puck near the right-hand boards and broke sharply to his left, confounding Montreal’s Michael Ryder with a gorgeous deke through his skates, and fired a puck on Carey Price.
It wasn’t a typical laser beam, but it found netting.
“It was almost like a curveball,” opined centre Nicklas Backstrom, who picked up two assists in the game and now has 42 points in 40 games this year. “Obviously he has a great shot, but right now everything goes in, so that’s good for us.”
The man himself said he didn’t much care about the how, what matters is the puck crossed the line.
“I didn’t see how it goes in, I know it goes up and down, I’ll take it, why not,” Ovechkin said of his 26 goal on the season. “I just wanted to shoot the puck, I deked Ryder, I know lots of traffic is going to be in front because JoJo (winger Marcus Johansson) fly there. I don’t know, the shot wasn’t that hard, but it goes in, so that’s good.”
Just under two minutes later, the Caps were up 2-1 after a lucky bounce – the puck skipped off Price’s blocker and then clipped Andrei Markov’s stick before falling gently in to the net.
Eric Fehr earned credit for the goal.
Defenceman Jack Hillen would add the winner at 5:33, but that goal – and this game – was about Ovechkin.
On his first shift, he steamrolled Montreal defenceman Josh Gorges in the corner. On his second, he created a turnover and set up Backstrom for a pair of chances that Price somehow managed to repel.
Ovechkin was menacing all night, using his bulk and speed to take healthy runs at several Habs, including rookie Brendan Gallagher and defenceman P.K. Subban.
The man who finished with a plus-2 and led all forwards with 21:54, also led all players with eight hits.
It wasn’t all good, of course.
Ovechkin took a foolish penalty with time expiring in the first period, and with his team up in the late going, made a boneheaded decision with an empty net yawning.
Montreal’s Lars Eller had scored his second of the game at 16:38 to narrow the gap to 3-2 and the Habs were buzzing furiously.
But Ovechkin neglected to step over the red line before letting fly with an attempt at his 27 goal (told later that Tampa’s Steven Stamkos had tied him by scoring his 26, he grinned “good for him”).
The play didn’t escape the notice of Washington coach Adam Oates: “I’ve seen that, but he’s got to work on his empty-netters.”
Fortunately for the Caps, they were able to withstand the final 40 seconds or so.
Now they can claim to have defeated one of the conference’s strongest teams, and have pushed their winning streak to five.
No one should bet against them extending it further against Carolina on Thursday.
The Canadiens, meanwhile, snapped their winning string at two, and will rue letting a game they led 1-0 and bossed in the late going get away.
“They played a good game . . . our intensity level wasn’t at the level it usually is. That happens often when you play an emotional game like the one against Boston (on Saturday). We had a slow start, but after that it went both ways,” said Montreal coach Michel Therrien.
The Canadiens directed 29 shots at Neuvirth – and outshot the Caps despite allowing 9 in the first five minutes – but also missed the net 13 times.
Alex Galchenyuk and Max Pacioretty were especially profligate, but generally it was a case of a high-scoring team not being able to find the handle when it needed to.
“It was a weird game. We had some opportunities but we weren’t able to pounce on the rebounds,” said captain Brian Gionta.
The Habs can take heart in the opportunities they created – this is a team that is good and getting better at breaking out of its own end – but the Caps are a swift-skating team and showed that for Montreal to compete in the playoffs, they’ll need to match the pace.
“This was a bit of a preview of the playoffs, and we’re going to have to adjust,” allowed defenceman Francis Bouillon.
The Canadiens will play their next two on the road against teams that have given them trouble this year – Buffalo and Toronto – but really only need to claim two more points to salt away a playoff spot.
Given the cushion they have over the Leafs, New York Islanders and Rangers, it’s almost inconceivable that the Habs will finish any lower than fourth – and a home seed.
But if they don’t find a way to finish their opportunities more effectively than they did against the Caps, there could be some uncomfortable moments ahead.