But at 11:25, not long after the parade to the penalty box concluded, Dylan Strome scored his first goal of the season to put the Capitals one shot away from tying the score. And with 2:01 to play, he scored his second goal to do just that.
The Canadiens still prevailed, 3-2, when Cole Caufield beat goalie Darcy Kuemper 47 seconds into overtime, but the Capitals’ rally to steal a standings point in a game that looked well out of reach could be a sign of progress.
“I think you saw a little bit more of our character come out tonight,” said Kuemper, who made 25 saves. “To be down 2-0 going into the third and then to have the penalty trouble we did but just kind of sticking with it, it was really nice to see. I think it was really positive for our group to battle through that adversity, be able to come back, tie the game. Unfortunately [we] don’t get two points but definitely a step in the right direction for how we want to play.”
As has become a theme for Washington early in the season, the Capitals (1-2-1) played a solid first period yet still gave up the first goal. Sean Monahan scored on the power play with 1:05 to play; Washington outshot Montreal 12-6 in the opening 20 minutes.
The Canadiens (2-1-1) doubled their lead midway through the second period on a goal from Brendan Gallagher, putting Washington in position to test its adherence to Coach Spencer Carbery’s message from Saturday morning. After Wednesday’s 6-1 loss at Ottawa, a game that quickly slipped away from the Capitals when they started pressing to score in response to the Senators’ goals, Carbery wanted his team to stay more contained against Montreal.
“Whatever happens in our shifts — we go down 1-0 — doesn’t change the way we play,” he said. “If we’re up 4-0, if we’re down 2-1, we need to be consistent and stay even-keeled with our game and not be trying to press.”
The Capitals did what Carbery asked for at times Saturday, but in the third period, the penalties threatened to make their composure obsolete. Recently recalled defenseman Hardy Haman Aktell, making his NHL debut, was whistled for interference at 3:02. After Washington killed the penalty, forward Sonny Milano ended up in the penalty box for goaltender interference at 5:28. While the Capitals killed Milano’s penalty, center Evgeny Kuznetsov was called for interference at 7:06, and after the Capitals killed that five-on-three, forward Tom Wilson was sent to the box for tripping at 8:02 to give Montreal another.
Wilson was incensed by the call, but his anger was short-lived. Montreal’s Josh Anderson continued the parade to the penalty box for slashing just 32 seconds later, Washington escaped the chaotic sequence without allowing a goal, and Strome scored his first not long after.
“Goals are hard to come by right now, and Darcy’s grinding back there for us,” Strome said. “… Hopefully that’s kind of the turning point we need, coming back there and feeling together as a team, and we can start to turn this around and put some goals in the net.”
Milano ended up back in the box shortly after Strome’s first goal, and the Capitals’ penalty kill again held strong. Just under three minutes after Milano returned, Strome pounced on a centering feed from Kuznetsov and beat Canadiens goalie Jake Allen (31 saves) to tie it.
Ultimately, Strome’s goals weren’t enough for Washington to complete the comeback. But amid a plodding start for many of the Capitals’ stars, the way they played late in the game is a glimmer of hope for Carbery and his squad.
Captain Alex Ovechkin, who went back-to-back games without a shot on goal for the first time in his career, had five Saturday and added the primary assist on Strome’s first goal. Kuznetsov tallied his first point with the primary assist on Strome’s second goal. There’s still work to be done, both at five-on-five and on the power play, but Carbery will take Saturday’s third period as a steppingstone.
“We are really, really struggling to finish and score goals right now,” he said. “For us to sort of fight back there, kill a ton of penalties, five-on-three, lengthy five-on-three and then still, with [five minutes left] when we get back to five-on-five, push for that equalizer … [I] liked the character and the battle to battle back.”