WASHINGTON (AP) — Don’t count out the Washington Capitals, no matter how big the deficit, no matter how dire the circumstances.
Nicklas Backstrom completed a hat trick by scoring only 31 seconds into overtime, helping the top-seeded Capitals finish a wild comeback to beat the Montreal Canadiens 6-5 Saturday night and even their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series at a game apiece.
Montreal led 2-0 after its first two shots, prompting Washington to yank goalie Jose Theodore, and then went ahead 4-1. But with Alex Ovechkin producing a goal and three assists, the Capitals kept rallying.
Rookie defenseman John Carlson tied it at 5-all with 1:21 left in regulation, and Backstrom’s wrister past Jaroslav Halak won it.
Game 3 is Monday in Montreal.
Andrei Kostitsyn had a hat trick for the eighth-seeded Canadiens, and Tomas Plekanec put them ahead 5-4 with 5:06 left in regulation. But Carlson picked a fine time for his second NHL score — he had one in 22 regular-season games.
Montreal was ahead 4-2 heading into the third period, but Ovechkin’s first goal of the postseason made it a one-goal game at 2:56. Carlson took a slap shot from the blue line that Halak blocked, but Ovechkin sneaked behind Montreal’s defense and poked the puck through the goalie’s legs while diving headfirst.
Ovechkin leaped up, bounced off the ice and threw his arms overhead to celebrate. Skating back to the bench, he pointed with his right glove, making a No. 1 sign.
About 30 seconds later, things got testy, with Ovechkin mixing it up with Brian Gionta, followed by a fight between Washington’s Tom Poti and Montreal’s Scott Gomez.
With 10 minutes left in the third, Backstrom poked in a pass from Ovechkin — reversing their usual roles, which designate the Swede as the passer and the Russian as the scorer.
The game was tied 4-4, and Backstrom pounded his gloves against the glass.
The Canadiens held Ovechkin in check in Game 1: It was the first zero-goal, zero-assist, zero-shots-on-goal performance of his NHL career.
So Saturday, Ovechkin came out aggressively, leveling Marc-Andre Bergeron right away and putting a shot on goal less than 10 seconds into his opening shift, a tapper that Halak easily swept away with his stick. By the time the game was 13 minutes old, Ovechkin already had accumulated six hits.
Still, it took exactly a minute for Montreal to take a 1-0 lead, when Gomez passed to Gionta as he came across the blue line on a counterattack. Gionta let fly a slap shot that sailed inside the post.
That was Montreal’s first shot of the game and, remarkably, its only one until 7:58, when Kostitsyn stole the puck in the neutral zone, skated past two passive Capitals defensemen and put the puck past Theodore.
That was that for 2002 NHL MVP Theodore, who slammed his stick when he reached the Capitals’ bench. Going back to Game 1, that ended with Montreal winning 3-2 on Plekanec’s goal 13:19 into overtime, Theodore had allowed goals on three consecutive shots.
Fans applauded and chanted “Var-lee! Var-lee!” as Semyon Varlamov skated out to replace Theodore in goal, and they roared less than 20 seconds later, when the Russian blocked the first shot Montreal sent his way.
So much for Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau’s vow before the series began that “there is no short leash” for Theodore this time. In last season’s playoffs, Theodore lost Game 1 of the first round against the New York Rangers, then was benched in favor of Varlamov, who had played only six games in the regular season. Varlamov anchored the Capitals until a Game 7 loss to Pittsburgh in the second round.
The Capitals got back into the game less than 2½ minutes after Kostitsyn’s first goal of the night, pulling within 2-1 when Eric Fehr took a pass from Tomas Fleischmann that set up a breakaway and beat Halak 1-on-1.
Washington trailed after the first period despite outshooting Montreal 13-8 and building up an 18-4 edge in hits.
Kostitsyn scored again 11:06 into the second period to put Montreal ahead 3-1.
The Canadiens made it 4-1 on a power play when Kostitsyn was credited with the goal at 17:44 of the second period.
Jaroslav Spacek, the defenseman doing such stellar work shadowing Ovechkin, took a slap shot from the blue line, and the puck appeared to ricochet off Washington defenseman Jeff Schultz’s stick before clanging through a group in front of the crease.
When play resumed after a long delay while Montreal’s third goal was reviewed on video, Washington needed only 39 seconds to cut the deficit to 4-2. Backstrom scored his second goal of the series on a shot from a tough angle wide of the left circle, and Ovechkin was credited with the secondary assist.
NOTES: Kostitsyn scored three goals in a regular-season game against Pittsburgh on Dec. 27, 2008. … Washington’s first power play came with 20.8 seconds left in the second period, when Mike Cammalleri was whistled for slashing.