Canadiens-Capitals Preview

The Associated Press

With their postseason fate still uncertain, the Washington Capitals can't afford to lose crucial points.

They haven't had much trouble earning them against the Montreal Canadiens in recent years.

Nicklas Backstrom will return from a nearly three-month absence Saturday night when Washington seeks its sixth straight victory over visiting Montreal.

The Capitals (39-31-8) picked up two important points with a 3-2 shootout win at Boston on Thursday. They had lost three of their previous four contests, though they've earned at least one point in five of their last six.

Alex Ovechkin had two assists, giving him 10 goals and four assists over his last 12 games.

''We are back on track,'' Ovechkin said. ''We are happy to take two points and take a big step.''

Washington can take sole possession of the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot with a win Saturday and pass Buffalo, which fell 5-3 to Pittsburgh on Friday to keep the teams tied. It can also pull within two points of first-place Florida in the Southeast Division.

Coach Dale Hunter said despite the tight and stressful race, it's an exciting time for his team after earning a tough win Thursday.

''This is the heat. Everybody likes playing in the heat,'' Hunter said. ''It's playoff hockey.''

The Capitals will get a big boost with the return of Backstrom, who has missed the last 40 games after suffering a concussion Jan. 3 against Calgary.

Backstrom was cleared by doctors to play earlier this week, and confirmed after Saturday's morning skate that he'd make his return against the Canadiens.

"I'm really excited," Backstrom, who's expected to center the team's top line between Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson, told the league's official website. "It's going to be fun to play again. It's a big game for us and we need all those points. I'm excited to be back in such an important game."

Washington has done just fine without Backstrom against Montreal this season, outscoring the Canadiens 10-1 while winning the first three meetings. Michal Neuvirth made 31 saves in a 3-0 win Jan. 18 and stopped 30 shots in a 4-1 victory in the most recent matchup Feb. 24.

Tomas Vokoun made 30 saves in a 3-0 win Feb. 4, though Neuvirth likely will get the nod Saturday as Vokoun nurses a nagging groin injury.

The Capitals are 8-0-2 versus the Canadiens in the regular season since late 2009, though Montreal upset top-seeded Washington in seven games in a 2010 first-round playoff series.

The Canadiens (29-35-14) won't be a part of the playoffs this season, sitting last in the East and coming off a 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers on Friday.

Montreal has lost five consecutive and nine of its last 11 road contests.

Despite the latest defeat, interim coach Randy Cunneyworth said he was pleased with the effort.

"We worked hard and we worked the boards well and at times out-battled them," Cunneyworth said. "It's a quick turnaround against Washington and we've got to be as good, if not better, than we were. We've got to get some rest and go at it again."

Peter Budaj will start in net and give Carey Price a rest after Price made 25 saves Friday. Budaj started and made 23 saves in the loss to the Capitals on Feb. 4, dropping to 0-2-0 with a 3.46 goals-against average in three appearances - two starts - lifetime against Washington.