Buoyed by their success in recent weeks, the Washington Capitals looked forward to traveling to play the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night. After feasting on many of the lesser teams to propel themselves into playoff position, the Capitals were eager for a more telling gauge of their progress against an Eastern Conference power.

Washington got precisely the tight-checking, nail-biting challenge against one of the East’s elite teams that it hoped for — and came out on top.

Alex Ovechkin recorded his 26th goal of the season and backup goalie Michal Neuvirth anchored Washington with 27 saves in just his second start in 13 games. But it was Jack Hillen’s first goal as a Capital that stood as the game-winner as Washington beat the Canadiens, 3-2, for its ninth win in 11 games and first regulation victory against a team currently in playoff position.

With the win, Washington (44 points) remains a step ahead of the Winnipeg Jets, who are the only real competition for the Southeast Division title. The Capitals hold a two-point lead on Winnipeg, which defeated Buffalo, 4-1, on Tuesday, and still have one game in hand.

The Capitals also add a little more confidence to their coffers, dispatching a team that sits second in the East with 55 points.

“It’s biggest points for us right now. We beat team in front of us and right now we know we can play against good teams,” said Ovechkin, who remains tied with Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos for the league lead in goals scored. “I think all of us play well and it starts right away, just keep going and play our system. It gives us results.”