MONTREAL – Goaltender Carey Price is the one Montreal Canadien who can’t be faulted for the club’s worst goal drought in 61 years.
Price stopped 31 of 33 shots but it wasn’t enough as the listless Canadiens were shut out in a third straight game in a 2-0 loss to the Washington Capitals on Saturday night.
And while the team was booed off the Bell Centre ice by the crowd of 21,273, the fans voted in Price as the game’s first star.
Marco Sturm scored early, Alexander Semin got one late and the tight-checking Capitals held Montreal to a season low of 18 shots on rookie Braden Holtby.
”We’re still a good hockey team, we’re just struggling,” said Price, whose team is 3-6 in its last nine. ”In the end, as long as we’re in the playoffs and have a chance to win the Stanley Cup is all that matters.”
The Canadiens (40-29-7) saw the New York Rangers tie them for sixth place in the NHL eastern Conference on 87 points after a 1-0 win over Boston, but a top-eight playoff spot still looks safe with ninth-place Carolina seven points back with seven games to go.
The eighth-place Buffalo Sabres are also now nipping at their heals with 85 points after a 2-0 victory over New Jersey.
”Those teams are coming up, but we can’t get scared and start gripping our sticks even more because that’s not going to help,” said Price. ”We have to play with confidence.
”We’re a confident group and I’ve got a lot of confidence in these guys. We’re going to get through this. I’m sure of that.”
Washington (44-22-10), who were coming off a 2-0 loss in Ottawa on Friday night, have won 12 of their last 14 games. They remain two points behind Philadelphia for the conference lead.
It marked the first time Montreal has been shut out three games in a row since October, 1949. Their goalless run reached 186 minutes five seconds since Tom Pyatt scored in the third period of an 8-1 win in Minnesota last Sunday.
The club’s longest drought was in February, 1928, when they were shut out four games in a row.
The Canadiens had been blanked 2-0 by Buffalo, another game in which Price played well but got no goal support, and 7-0 by Boston, when he was pulled after five goals, in their previous two games. The lethargic play continued as they were outshot 12-3 in the first period.
Tomas Plekanec missed a bouncing puck at the Washington blue-line and it sent the Caps in on a two-on-one that saw Sturm bang in Nicklas Backstrom’s rebound 1:24 into the game.
Semin added an insurance goal with 3:41 to play when he converted a perfect feed from Backstrom on a counterattack.
”As a team at this time of year you want a better effort,” said captain Brian Gionta. ”To come out flat three games in a row—we’ve got to find that urgency level you need.”
Many of the boos were directed at centre Scott Gomez, the club’s highest-paid player who has seven goals and is a team-worst minus-16 this season. But coach Jacques Martin said there was more than one culprit.
”He’s one of the individuals who needs to elevate their game for us to have success,” said Martin. ”There’s lots of people who didn’t give us the type of game we needed to win.”
Martin said the team has got away from the tight positional play it thrives on and that more support is needed for the puck-carrier to get it back.
He usually gives the team Sundays off, but not this week as the they will practise to get ready for a visit from the Atlanta Thrashers on Tuesday night.
The Capitals went 4-2-0 on a six-game road trip that began and ended with wins in Montreal.
With Michal Neuvirth sick, Caps coach Bruce Boudreau opted to call up Holtby from AHL Hershey to start in goal. The 21-year-old, who posted his second shutout in 14 NHL games, was in the net for a 4-2 win in Montreal on March 15.
Semyon Varlamov started in Ottawa Friday and they didn’t want him to play back-to-back coming off a recent injury.
Washington went 3-0-1 against Montreal this season.
Notes: Several members of the 1994 Montreal Expos were at the game, including Pedro Martinez, John Wetteland, Mel Rojas, Rondell White and Denis Boucher, and theygot a big ovation. It was perhaps bad timing for them to be at a game involving Washington, where the Expos ended up moving in 2005. . . Montreal’s previous low shot total was 19 against San Jose on Dec. 4. . . The Capitals hope to have Alex Ovechkin back by the end of the week. . . Yannick Weber and Pyatt were scratched for Montreal, while Neuvirth didn’t dress for Washington.