Yet they only trailed by one, and they eventually got their act together. Tomas Plekanec tied the game in the third period with his third goal of the young season, and the slow start evolved into a 2-1 shootout win Thursday night.
"First period was probably the worst period since I have been a Montreal Canadien," said forward Brandon Prust, who's starting his third season with the team. "We were very fortunate to be down 1-0."
Brendan Gallagher scored the decisive goal in the fifth round of the shootout, and Dustin Tokarski made 29 saves for the Canadiens, getting the start after Carey Price worked the 4-3 win over Toronto on Wednesday.
"We start to play, we start to hustle in the second period," Montreal coach Michel Therrien said. "We start to play with more passion. Tokarski was great, gave us a chance to stay in the game."
The result spoiled the Capitals debut of Barry Trotz, the longtime Nashville Predators coach who was hired to get Washington back to the playoffs after the team sat out the post-season last spring for the first time since 2007.
Trotz said he was nervous before the game, got chills during the national anthems and had trouble calling out the line changes because Capitals fans were so loud. He said his team lost the game because its dominant play in the first period never produced a second goal.
"You have them on the floor, and you couldn't just knock them out," Trotz said. "They were resilient, and they sort of crawled their way back into the game. Shame on us we couldn't bury them."
Nineteen-year-old rookie Andre Burakovsky, the Capitals' latest experiment at second-line centre, scored his first NHL goal 6:43 into the game. The 2013 first-round draft pick hit a one-timer from the slot on a feed from Troy Brouwer after Brouwer created a turnover near the Montreal net.
By the third period, Montreal was pinning Washington on its heels and got one goal that counted and two that didn't. Plekanec tied the game with 9:29 left in regulation, going high to beat Braden Holtby from the right circle.
The Canadiens thought they had evened the score about a minute earlier, but Rene Bourque was cited for goaltender interference to wipe out Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau's apparent goal. Then, with the score tied and 4:29 to play, Bourque's drive from the left circle was ruled a goal — until a video review showed the shot hit the right post without clearing the line.
Capitals three-time league MVP Alex Ovechkin had an active game, taking four shots on goal, drawing two penalties and getting credit for six hits as he returned to left wing after playing mostly on the right side under previous coach Adam Oates.
Notably, Ovechkin wasn't among the first three Capitals in the shootout. When he did get an attempt, in the fourth round, it was saved by Tokarski. Ovechkin was only 2 for 16 in the skills competition last season.
"There's guys that are really good at shootouts, and there's guys that can score 5-on-5," Trotz said. "He's just really good 5-on-5. I don't think he's really great in the shootouts."
NOTES: Burakovsky became the first Capitals player to score his first goal in his NHL debut since Ovechkin on Oct. 5, 2005. ... Among the scratches for Washington was D Mike Green, sidelined with an upper-body injury. ... The Capitals welcomed former favourites Peter Bondra, Sylvain Cote, Rod Langway and Craig Laughlin for the start of their 40th anniversary season. Langway recalled that the team's practice facility in the 1980s was in such a bad neighbourhood that police had to watch the players' cars. He also called the old suburban Capital Centre "one of the worst buildings in the league." The team moved to the downtown Verizon Center in 1997.
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