WASHINGTON -- Since staking themselves to an early lead in the series, the Montreal Canadiens were searching for consistency. They'd play well in spurts, but slip-ups would become magnified when Washington didn't score just one goal, but instead got three.
The Habs found their balance Friday night at Verizon Center. That along with Jaroslav Halak's fabulous night are the only reasons they are still playing hockey this spring.
"We've had that same kind of effort in every game but we've had a lapse," right wing Brian Gionta said following Montreal's 2-1 win in Game 5 that was buoyed by Halak's 37-save performance. "(Friday) night we were able to maintain that level."
The Canadiens scored twice on goals by Michael Cammalleri and Travis Moen within the first 7:01 of the game to take a 2-0 lead. A strong start was only one of their goals; holding on to that early lead was primary.
And until Friday night's game there was no reason to think the Canadiens had that in them against the highly explosive Capitals.
Montreal proved you can keep Ovechkin and Co. down by clinging to the early lead throughout the final 52 minutes and 59 seconds. Save for some white on the power play, there were not many open patches of ice for the Capitals.
"That's how we have to play to be successful. Obviously, that's what we're striving for; we've got to play a full 60 and play games like that if we want to win this series." -- Travis Moen
It was almost out of character for the Canadiens considering what happened in the three previous games:
* Montreal had a 4-1 lead with 2:44 to play in the second period of Game 2, but the Caps struck for three goals to tie it before 10 minutes had elapsed in the third period. The Canadiens later scored the go-ahead goal, but that lead was washed away when John Carlson scored with 81 seconds remaining in regulation. Nicklas Backstrom won it for the Caps just 31 seconds into overtime.
* The Canadiens were similarly strong through the first period of Game 3 when they outshot Washington, 10-7, and had the energy of a wild and raucous Bell Centre crowd. But they couldn't solve Semyon Varlamov and once Boyd Gordon struck for a shorthanded goal, the Capitals poured it on. They scored three more times in the second period, chasing Halak after the third goal, and cruised to a 5-1 win.
* Montreal held a 2-1 lead in the waning moments of the second period in Game 4, but Gordon and Mike Knuble hooked up on another shorthanded goal with 6.3 seconds left. Before you could say sacre bleu, the Capitals were up 4-2 and en route to a 6-3 win.
"I don't think we played a near perfect game," Cammalleri said of Friday's effort. "It's a game of mistakes. (Halak) played very well and we capitalized on a couple of chances. I liked our hunger. I liked our desperation. It felt like we were going to make sure we were going home to play another one."
The Capitals will argue that it wasn't so much what Montreal did but what they didn't do in the final two periods that killed any chance they had for another come-from-behind win. However, the Canadiens deserve credit for what was effectively a neutral zone trap.
For the most part, they took the middle away from the Capitals. Washington still had its share of chances, but that's to be expected from a team that scored more than 300 goals during the regular season and had 19 more in the first four games of the series.
"You have to be responsible with the puck," said Gionta, who agreed that the way the Habs played in the third period especially reminded him of some old Devils' hockey. "You have to make sure you're not turning the puck over and that you're smart with what you're doing. It's a fine line between sitting back and being high-risk."
High-risk probably wouldn't have equaled reward for the Canadiens, not with the Capitals pushing hard for the equalizer after Ovechkin scored early in the third period. But when does high-risk equal reward against Washington?
It took the Canadiens five games, but they figured out the necessary conservative, steady-on-the-rudder approach they need to keep a lead against the Capitals.
Now they have to do it again Monday night.
"Every battle needs to be won," Gionta said. "They are explosive and dynamic. You can't let up for a minute."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl