Every game the rest of the regular season is going to present the Washington Capitals with a chance to move up or down in the Eastern Conference standings. But no team in hockey is on more of a roll, as the Caps won their ninth straight game overall -- and a team record sixth on a row on the road -- in a 4-2 win over last year's playoff nemesis Montreal Canadiens before a raucous crowd at the Bell Centre.
Rookie center Marcus Johansson, bouncing between the first and second lines due to injuries to Nicklas Backstrom and Jason Arnott, scored twice, notching his second two-goal game of the season. Johansson's development this season has been impressive and he seems to be getting better as the season goes on.
And that's good. Because with Arnott's "week-to-week" injury, Johansson is going to have to shoulder the load for a couple weeks that he looked ill-equipped to handle the first half of the season: that of a play-making second line center.
Johansson certainly looked the part last night, and has on occasion this season looked brilliant. He's a terrific skater and decent defender, but at time on offense he's looked timid and deferential to the veterans on the team.
But the young Swede banged home an awkward bounce off the back boards into an empty net for the first goal of the game, and got the game winner in the third, putting a backhander in against Carey Price (37 saves) off a nice pass from Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin had beaten P.K. Subban to the loose puck behind the net and got the puck to an open Johansson cutting to the goal.
Mike Knuble added a one-timer blast with 3:07 left to seal the victory, aided by a pretty saucer pass from Marco Sturm, who had just left the penalty box after taking a bad hooking call. Brooks Laich got his 16th of the season -- and 100th NHL goal -- earlier in the game by beating Hal Gill to the outside, cutting across the crease and slipping the puck past a sprawled Price.
Price was tremendous in this game, and he defied logic and gravity at time keeping his Canadiens teammates in this one. But time and again his defense let him down, committing costly turnovers and bad passes through the neutral zone. And when the Montreal offense did manage to set up, Braden Holtby was there, making 24 saves in his fifth consecutive win.
Holtby looked shaky early, and made a huge error, playing a puck behind the net and not getting back to his crease quickly enough. Travis Moen collected the puck along the boards below the circle and fired a short-angle shot, beating the goalie to the net. Montreal's other goal was a nice wrist shot that beat Holtby glove side.
But the rookie netminder was again solid in the third period, turning away all eight Montreal shots in the final frame to help carry the Caps to victory.
The win came with a price, though, as Eric Fehr left the game in the second period and did not return. After the game, coach Bruce Boudreau said Fehr suffered an "upper body injury" and would be re-evaluated in the morning.
It was a big game and a big win for the Capitals in Montreal last night. The Bell Center can be a house of horrors, and no Caps fan will soon forget how last year's series turned out with "Le Blue, Blanc et Rouge."
But this year's version of the Capitals are coming into their own as the second season approaches. They still haven't lost since the trade deadline, and are playing the tight-checking, close to the vest style of hockey that many around the league refer to as "playoff hockey".
They proved again last night they can go into a tough building and come out with two points. Nine wins in a row in has vaulted the Caps back into the conversation about the top seed in the East, and as play begins Wednesday Washington finds themselves just one point behind Philadelphia for that top spot, though the Flyers have two games in hand over the Caps.
As the road trip continues through Detroit and New Jersey, next Tuesday's matchup with the Flyers looms.
Can you blame a guy for looking ahead a little bit?
CAPS NOTES: Jason Arnott did not make the road trip with what the Capitals are calling a "week-to-week" undisclosed injury. He will miss at least the first three games of the road trip.
Nickals Backstrom (hand) did make the trip and skated before the Montreal game, but was held out again. He could very well make his return Wednesday in Detroit.
Jay Beagle got a sweater for the first time since Feb. 26. He took 15 shifts and recorded one shot on goal.
John Carlson played his best game in a while, recording six shots and blocking two. He had an assist and was plus-2 for the night.
Matt Hendricks had a goal waived off after a scramble in the crease. The video replay judges ruled the on-ice officials either had or were in the process of blowing the play dead and upheld the ruling on the ice of "no goal."
The power play went 2-for-5, but failed to score on a 1:25 five-on-three to end the first period.