- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 4, 2012

MONTREAL | Tomas Vokoun’s first career game came with the Montreal Canadiens in Philadelphia on Feb. 6, 1997. He got shelled for four goals on 14 shots and was yanked after one period. At 20 years old, that could have been his only chance as he faded away along with countless other goalies who didn’t work out in the NHL.

It didn’t, and Vokoun came full circle almost 15 years to the date of that miserable debut by blanking the team that drafted him for the first time in his career, leading the Washington Capitals to a 3-0 victory Saturday at Bell Centre.

“Obviously that’s a long time ago. We needed the two points and we play pretty good game,” Vokoun said. “I think we play smart and we were fortunate enough to get one-goal lead and kind of play smart road game, didn’t give them much. So it’s a good win for us. We’ve been struggling on the road, so we looked at the standings; we were outside the playoff. We need every point we can get.”

Vokoun picked up his 47th career shutout and passed Canadiens great Ken Dryden on the NHL’s all-time list. He didn’t realize it was the first time he ever shut out the team that drafted him all the way back in 1994.

“I don’t follow stats that closely,” Vokoun said. “But it’s nice to get a win and a shutout.”

While the Caps got a very fortunate bounce to score and settled into a low-risk, low-scoring-chance sort of game, Vokoun did all he needed to in order to stifle a struggling Canadiens offense. A third-period scoring outburst made this appear more lopsided than the actual play, but Vokoun ensured these two points were never in danger for the Caps.

“He never put himself in any trouble tonight,” forward Brooks Laich said. “I don’t know if I remember one goal crease scramble or diving across the crease; he was very composed, very calm and it looked like he really had his game.”

The 35-year-old didn’t have to make any crazy saves, but he made all of them – timely and otherwise.

Because of that, Vokoun was dominant. He finished with 30 saves and became the third different Caps goalie to pitch a shutout in Montreal in the past three games here. Last month it was Michal Neuvirth making 31 saves to frustrate the Bell Centre crowd and last March it was Braden Holtby making 18.

“It’s one of those streaks you’re kind of like, it’s pretty weird three shutouts in a row,” Vokoun said. “But I’ll take mine and obviously I look at it more as a [victory] we badly needed and that’s more important than any shutout.

The Canadiens’ scoring drought at home against the Caps is now 216 minutes, 32 seconds dating to an Andrei Kostitsyn goal March 15.

Much of that has been self-inflicted for Montreal, which is in the midst of a season careening toward apathy in a city used to celebrating winning hockey. It has been anything but this season, with the Canadiens falling further and further toward the Eastern Conference basement and a possible top-five draft pick. No time were their struggles more evident than when Dennis Wideman golfed a shot over backup goaltender Peter Budaj, and it turned out to be the game-winner.

“Things aren’t going well for them and when it’s going that way, it seems like goals like that go in,” Wideman said. “You feel bad. I’ve been on the other end before.”

Any decent scoring chances the Canadiens got, Vokoun was there to turn aside. It was the perfect chance for him to reassume his role as the man in net for the Caps after Neuvirth’s struggles on Wednesday at the Florida Panthers.

Coach Dale Hunter would not announce Vokoun as his starter for Sunday’s quick turnaround game back home against the defending Stanley Cup-champion Boston Bruins, but Saturday afternoon’s performance may have made the decision an easy one.

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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