Capitals blow lead, beat Canadiens 3-2 in shootoutThe Washington Capitals celebrate after center Jay Beagle scored a goal against Montreal Canadiens goalie Peter Budaj (30) during the first period of an NHL hockey game on Saturday, March 31, 2012 in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
WASHINGTON (AP) The Washington Capitals welcomed back Nicklas Backstrom and took a big step toward the playoffs Saturday night, blowing a two-goal lead for the second game in a row before taking the shootout for a 3-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens.
The result, coupled with Toronto's 4-3 win over Buffalo, moved the Capitals two points clear of the Sabres with three games to play. Washington also moved within two points of Southeast Division leader Florida.
Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin scored in the shootout for the Capitals. David Desharnais had his attempt stopped by goaltender Michal Neuvirth, and Max Pacioretty missed wide for the Canadiens.
The Capitals essentially put on a repeat performance from Thursday, when they also lost a 2-0 lead at Boston before getting a 3-2 shootout win.
Mathieu Perreault and Jay Beagle scored first-period goals, and Neuvirth made 38 saves for the Capitals, but the main attraction was top-line center Backstrom, who was sidelined for 40 games with a concussion.
Backstrom received a roaring reception when he was the last player introduced in the starting lineups, and even the singer of the Canadian and American national anthems wore a Backstrom No. 19 jersey.
The 24-year-old forward, who is fifth on the team with 42 points despite all the games he missed, took the faceoff that began the game.
Backstrom had been out since Jan. 3, when he was elbowed in a game against Calgary by Rene Bourque, who now plays with the Canadiens. Backstrom played nearly 20 minutes Saturday night and won 12 of his 18 faceoffs.
Erik Cole and Tomas Plekanec scored for the Canadiens. Peter Budaj made 31 saves.
The Canadiens are the worst team in the East, and they looked like it early. They gave the Capitals three power plays in the first 14 minutes, including one after Budaj was whistled for playing the puck outside the trapezoid behind the net.
The Capitals didn't convert any of those man-advantage chances, but they scored with a pair of easy odd-man rushes. On a two-on-one, Semin had his shot saved but corralled the rebound and passed to trailer Perrault for the goal. Beagle made it 2-0 with his third goal of the season, skating in unmarked to tap in a pass from Matt Hendricks.
But Washington lost the lead. Montreal cut it to one in the final minute of the period when Cole poked in a rebound, and the Canadiens' assertive play in the second period was rewarded when Plekanec skated around defenseman Roman Hamrlik to put a shot over Neuvirth's glove.
Notes: Canadiens C Petteri Nokelainen left the game in the second period with an upper body injury. ... The Capitals placed D John Erskine on injured reserve with a lower body injury. He hasn't played since Feb. 12. ... The Capitals have won six straight over Montreal.
Joseph White can be reached at https://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP