Capitals beat Canadiens in shootout for crucial victory

The Washington Capitals welcomed back Nicklas Backstrom and took a big step toward the playoffs Saturday night, blowing a two-goal lead for the second game in a row before taking the shootout for a 3-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens.

Washington sits in 8th place, 2 points ahead of Buffalo Sabres

The Washington Capitals celebrate after centre Jay Beagle scored a goal against Montreal Canadiens goalie Peter Budaj, left, on Saturday night. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

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.

Eastern Playoff Race PTS GP **ROW
1. x-Rangers 107 78 46
2. x-Bruins 96 78 38
3. *Panthers 90 78 31
4. x-Penguins 102 78 39
5. x-Flyers 99 78 41
6. x-Devils 96 79 33
7. Senators 90 78 34
8. Capitals 88 79 36
9. Sabres 86 79 31
*Division Leader **ROW = Regulation + OT Wins x-clinched playoff berth      

Main attraction

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."