Following a successful road trip, the Washington Capitals look to continue their push toward the top of the Eastern Conference as they open their longest homestand of the season.
The Capitals begin a five-game stretch at the Verizon Center on Wednesday night against a struggling Montreal Canadiens club that’s won once on the road in the past month.
Washington (36-16-5) extended its Southeast Division lead over Florida to 13 points with a 4-2 win over the Panthers on Sunday, completing a 2-0-1 trip. The Caps won their second straight as Alex Ovechkin notched his third hat trick of the season, scoring the winner with 2:31 remaining and adding an empty-net goal with 10 seconds left.
“I tried to use my speed just a little, use my body and after that I just tried to shoot the puck and it was in,” Ovechkin said of the winning goal.
The star forward has recorded 14 goals and six assists as Washington has gone 9-2-2 since a three-game slide from Jan. 9-13.
That surge has the Caps battling New Jersey for second place in the East and has pulled them closer to first-place Boston, which has struggled of late.
Washington should have a good chance to keep the pressure on both clubs if Ovechkin continues his red-hot play. The NHL leader with 41 goals, Ovechkin has notched a goal and two assists against Montreal in 2008-09 as the Capitals have taken two of three.
Mike Green did not score Sunday, ending his NHL-record goal streak for defensemen at eight games. Green also fell one shy of tying the team record for consecutive games with a goal.
“(The streak) has to come to an end,” Green said. “Couldn’t score for the rest of the year, but it would have been nice. But as long as we get the win, that’s all that matters.”
Washington’s Jose Theodore seems likely to start Wednesday. He’s 12-4-0 with a 2.11 goals-against average at home this season, and earned his 27th career shutout with 28 saves in a 3-0 win over Montreal on Nov. 28 at the Verizon Center.
That game was only the second of Theodore’s career against the Canadiens, with whom he started his career and played for from 1995-2006.
While Washington plays nine of its next 10 at home, Montreal (30-21-6) is 1-3-0 on a season-high six-game trip. Sunday’s 4-2 loss to Vancouver was the Canadiens’ 10 in 13 games following an 11-2-1 stretch.
The Canadiens are 1-8-0 on the road since a 5-4 shootout win over Ottawa on Jan. 17. They’ll be facing a Washington club that’s a conference-best 22-4-1 on home ice.
“We’ve tried everything. Obviously there’s nowhere to hide,” Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau said. “We just can’t find that spark that gets us going.”
The Canadiens are hoping Mathieu Schneider can provide it. The veteran defenseman was acquired from Atlanta on Monday for a pair of draft picks. Schneider was a third-round draft pick by the Canadiens in 1987 and a member of their 1993 Stanley Cup championship team.
“I’m just thrilled. I can’t say enough,” he said. “Maybe this is an omen, hopefully.”
Schneider is likely to make his debut Wednesday, and Montreal hopes he can inject life into a power play that’s near the bottom of the league at 16.1 percent.
Center Tomas Plekanec is eligible to return Wednesday after serving a two-game suspension for tripping Denis Grebeshkov in the Canadiens’ 7-2 loss to Edmonton on Feb. 11. Plekanec had two goals in Montreal’s 5-4 home victory over Washington on Jan. 10, the teams’ last meeting.
Wednesday is the Canadiens’ 6,000th game.