MONTREAL – Washington Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau didn’t know much about his rookie goalie, but he knew enough not to be concerned about his confidence.
Michael Nylander scored the winner with 2:32 to play in regulation and Simeon Varlamov made 32 saves to win his NHL debut as the streaking Washington Capitals downed the Montreal Canadiens 2-1 on Saturday night.
“He came to camp as a 20-year-old knowing we had (Jose) Theodore and (Brent) Johnson saying he was going to make the team, so I didn’t really worry about his confidence,” Boudreau said of Varlamov. “I don’t know him well enough to know how he’s feeling. I just knew in the dressing room he was staring straight out and I wasn’t going to bother him. I just left him alone. I didn’t want to screw him up.”
Nicklas Backstrom also scored for the Capitals (18-10-3), who have won five of their last six, but Backstrom, Sergei Fedorov and defenceman Tyler Sloan didn’t finish the game.
Boudreau’s team has been riddled with injuries of late and was just getting back to being healthy before being hit with these latest setbacks.
“I’m afraid to go into that (medical) room,” said Boudreau, who had no updates on their status. “I didn’t know who was left on the bench.”
Patrice Brisebois scored the lone goal for the Canadiens (16-8-5), who wrapped up a franchise record seven-game homestand with two losses in a row.
Jaroslav Halak started his third straight game for the Canadiens as starter Carey Price remains out with a virus and a lower body injury. Halak made 24 saves and has stopped 75 of 81 shots over his last three starts, but he’s lost two of them.
“It’s a tough one for me to swallow,” Halak said. “I thought we played a good game and we at least deserved one point.”
Both Varlamov and Canadiens centre Ben Maxwell were making their NHL debuts, each freshly called up from the AHL.
Varlamov had one to remember, being named the first star, though he did benefit from the Canadiens hitting three goal posts. The Washington bench exploded on to the ice after the win, mobbing their goalie.
“We all wanted to win a game in Montreal, especially for this guy,” Alexander Ovechkin said of his goalie, who doesn’t speak English.
The Canadiens power play continued to struggle, going 0-for-8 and generating few chances.
“You can write whatever you want, right now our power play is non-existent because we get outworked by the opposition,” Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau said. “We have an advantage and we don’t take advantage of that.”
The best power play in the league the past two seasons is now 6-for-77 in Montreal’s last 17 games, a success rate of 7.8 per cent, and Carbonneau showed his frustration by putting the fourth line of Maxim Lapierre, Steve Begin and Tom Kostopoulos out for two power play shifts in the second period.
Alex Kovalev, who was used on the point on the power play for the first time this year, didn’t read anything into the use of the fourth-liners.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with a message or anything like that,” Kovalev said. “You get to the point where you have to try different things. They’re all good players, hard-working players, and he decided to try them. Everybody’s got to get a chance.”
But when asked later if there was indeed a message being sent to his power-play regulars, Carbonneau didn’t hesitate to answer.
“Definitely,” he said. “If we’re not last in the league, we can’t be far now. We were 0-for-8 tonight and that’s the difference. Last year we’d score two or three goals on eight chances, instead of giving up a goal at the end of the game and losing 2-1, we’re ahead 3-1. That’s where we’re losing games right now. There’s no other reason.”
The Capitals power play, conversely, continued to hum along with a goal on four chances, and is now 11-for-29 over the past seven games.
With the game tied 1-1 late in the third, the Canadiens had two great chances to go ahead when Alex Tanguay shot over an open net and Kovalev followed up by ringing one off the post with Varlamov scrambling.
The Capitals came down and took advantage of Montreal’s missed opportunity, as Nylander fought off a Roman Hamrlik check to grab a rebound and bank it in off Halak for his third of the season and first since Oct. 16.
Washington’s lethal power play struck only nine seconds into its first opportunity, capitalizing on a retaliation penalty by Josh Gorges to take a 1-0 lead.
Ovechkin, the target of the roughing penalty taken by Gorges, put a shot on net from the point and Backstrom whacked the rebound in on his third try for his 10th of the season at 10:19 of the first.
Backstrom now has five goals and five assists in his last seven games.
Washington then handed the Canadiens five straight power plays – including a double-minor on Ovechkin – but Montreal was unable to generate much pressure, let alone a goal.
“Once they were 0-for-4 and then 0-for-5, I figured we had a chance and if we got another penalty against us we might even score a goal because they’re going to really be holding their stick tight,” Boudreau said. “I think it was the best effort our penalty killers gave all year.”
With the teams playing 4-on-4, Brisebois tied the game when he took a Tanguay pass and fired a long slapshot through Varlamov for his third of the year at 15:25 of the second.
Notes: The Canadiens were missing Christopher Higgins (shoulder/arm), Saku Koivu (ankle/foot), Carey Price (flu and lower body), Georges Laraque (groin) and Mike Komisarek (shoulder). Komisarek could return next week… The Capitals recently welcomed back a legion of injured regulars, including Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Fedorov and Tom Poti, but forwards Tomas Fleischmann, Eric Fehr and defenceman John Erskine remain on the shelf.