In one of the more wilder finishes this season, Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Martin Gerber was kicked out of the game for shoving the referee after Washington’s Brooks Laich tied the contest with 56 seconds left. The Caps, who have struggled to get the puck by Gerber in two games (only 3 goals on 74 shots), looked to catch a break when veteran netminder Curtis Joseph came off the bench cold as the backup. But tonight it was CuJo’s time to get one last spotlight and tribute from the fans at the Air Canada Centre, who love him dearly in the Big Smoke, and he played like he did back in his prime stopping all nine shots he faced, including some quality ones from Washington’s big guns in the 4 on 4 in OT and during a Caps 4 on 3 power play to close the game out. Then he stopped Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin, and Alex Ovechkin in succession in the shootout and Jeff Hamilton tallied (five hole) on Jose Theodore to give the Leafs the win.
This was an up and down game for a flu ridden Washington team who played well in the first period outshooting the Leafs, 10-6, but then were out worked for most of the second period as the Leafs took a 1-0 lead on a point shot by Phil Oreskovic that was going wide but hit Caps defenseman John Erskine and deflected into the net for Oreskovic’s first goal of the season. The Leafs continued to pressure after that but Theodore made some big saves to keep the Caps in it. Washington then found its legs late in the period, putting a barage of shots on Gerber, and finally broke through with 21 seconds left in the period as Backstrom fed Ovechkin with a nice pass on the power play that sprung the Great #8 down the right side in alone on Gerber and Alex deked the Leafs goalie down and shoved the puck behind him into the vacant net. The goal was Ovechkin’s 51st of the season (Ovechkin also had an assist on Laich’s goal and was +1 on the evening).
But that momentum the Caps built late in the second period went out the window in the third period as Toronto was all over the visitors for the first 12 minutes but Theodore once again stood tall to hold Washington in. Again, with eight minutes to go, the Caps started finding their legs and they put alot of pressure on Gerber but could not get the puck by him. Then with 2:36 to go Erskine took a lazy and stupid hooking penalty on Matt Stajan in the offensive zone (the Caps had three other guys back on defense while Stajan had no other Leaf with him). Pavel Kubina then put Toronto up 2-1 just 28 seconds into the power play on another point blast in which Theodore was screened (Tom Poti and Jeff Schultz failed to clear the net) and #77′s shot beat him five hole.
An opportunity to get at least a point seemed out the window but Washington put on furious pressure and with #60 pulled for the extra attacker Semin threw the puck out front from behind the net and in a goal mouth scramble Laich had his stick on the puck, which was under Gerber, and both the puck and the goalie went into the net. The referee immediately signaled goal and Gerber lost it, throwing his glove, shouting at the referee, and ultimately banging into both the official and then the linesman. He was then kicked out with a game misconduct.
But that only set the stage for CuJo who came in and did his magic and gave Toronto fans something to cheer for in another season in which the home team will miss the playoffs again (no Stanley Cup parade on Yonge street once again!).
For Washington, they finish this five game road trip at 2-2-1 but lost the opportunity to pass the New Jersey Devils for second place in the Eastern Conference. They now are tied with the Devils at 97 points but Martin Brodeur and company have two games in hand. This was a point lost tonight, although the Caps look like a sick and tired bunch (and apparently Tom Poti has the flu now too plus you can count Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau and GM George McPhee as others in this organization who are fighting this plague). After Kubina’s goal they could have packed it in but they didn’t and did salvage a point and have a 10 point lead on the Carolina Hurricans with seven games to go in the Southeast Division title race. Five points is now the magic number for Washington to clinch the division title (any combination of Caps points and Canes points not gained). As for clinching a playoff berth, Washington can do that if the Florida Panthers lose in regulation on Wednesday night at Buffalo so a post season spot is just a formality, at this point.
Hershey Recalls: Forward Steve Pinnozotto was recalled from Hershey because Semin and Matt Bradley are battling the flu. Both played so Pinnozotto did not dress. Goalie Daren Machesney was also recalled to give rookie Simeon Varlamov some playing time down in Hershey since the Caps only have two games this week. The move also saved some salary cap space.
#28: Semin looked out of it most of the night but battled his way through the evening not at full health. He passed up some good shooting chances tonight and he also took a hit in the chops from Kubina late in the contest. He nearly won the game in OT with his wrister but CuJo got it and he also brilliantly set up the Great #8 late in regulation (who was subsequently stoned by Joseph). A couple of days of rest should get Semin back to 100% and he will need to be firing on all cylinders in the playoffs for the Caps to advance in the first round and beyond.
Notes: The Caps outshot the Leafs, 8-0, in the overtime and 45-29 for the game. Washington won the face-off battle 34-25. The Caps were 1 for 2 on the power play while the Leafs were 1 for 3. I thought the referees missed some calls on the Leafs but that is what you get up in Canada in the home of Leaf Nation – you have to work harder and make your breaks and the Caps came up just short in that department, although CuJo gets alot of credit for that. This Leafs team is not very talented but former Caps Coach Ron Wilson has them playing a system that works and they are very competitive and play with pride and effort. The problem for the Leafs this season is they’ve been too successful and will miss out on the John Tavares sweepstakes. Toronto needs some highly skilled players and Tavares would have been the perfect fit.