For the second time this season the Caps played in Toronto against the Maple Leafs after playing the night before in DC. As was mentioned in Friday night’s blog the Caps had trouble getting to the Big Smoke last time and Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau hoped this trip would be better. Unfortunately his wish did not come true and after the tower saw sparks coming from the Caps plane on the runway at Dulles last night, the team went home and then flew to Canada today. The outcome of the game was even worse as a tired Washington team faded in the third period and lost to the Maple Leafs, 6-3, to drop to 20-7-6 on the season. Fortunately for the Capitals they don’t come back to Toronto again during the regular season.
Washington would jump out to a fast 2-0 lead, and it could have been 4-0 if Brendan Morrison (snakebit right now) doesn’t miss a tap in off of a Brooks Laich rebound and Alexander Semin scores on a breakaway (Leafs goalie Vesa Toskala robbed him with a great glove save). Alexander Ovechkin (1 goal and 2 assists) and Nicklas Backstrom (2 goals) were red hot and along with Alex Semin (1 assist) had a really good first 40 minutes. But Ovechkin and Backstrom had a bad power play shift when it was 4-3 Leafs and gave up a shorthanded goal to Lee Stepmniak. Semin was also stopped on a breakaway in the third period when it was 5-3 (and that came shortly after an Ovechkin shot was deflected off of a stick into the side of his head). After that Toskala save this one was over.
Here is the post game analysis:
Weird game tonight but understandable, a bit, given the Washington travel woes. The Caps were fabulous in the first period, outside of giving up three 2 on 1 breaks, and if not for Toskala, some misfires, and a bit of over passing on the second Washington power play this one is a blow out early.
Even though the Caps were up 2-0, the limited shots that were put on Michal Neuvirth in the opening stanza were not handled well by #30, perhaps he was nervous? Whatever the case, he could not settle down and the first three goals he gave up were shaky, at best. The first goal he allowed to Matt Stajan was terrible as he could not handle an easy outside shot from Phil Kessel. Some will blame Mike Green for not clearing the rebound but that one is primarily on Neuvirth for mishandling a simple long shot. That bad goal gave the Leafs some hope and it deflated Washington and turned the whole game around. Then after the Capitals were called for a too many men penalty and Green took down Tomas Kaberle to give the Leafs a 5 on 3, Kessel beat Neuvirth short side on a shot he should have had. The Leafs third goal was really weak as well, Neuvirth went down WAY too early and Nik Hagman’s shot should never get through an NHL goalie (and #30 did not look like one on Saturday). The young goalie continued to struggle the remainder of the contest with rebound control and was a major factor in the loss. His positioning on the 4th goal was not good either. Comcast’s Alan May felt that Jose Theodore should have gotten the start and he turned out to be right, although I was definitely in the start Neuvirth camp after Friday’s poor performance from Theo.
Penalties and special teams were a problem for Washington on Saturday. The Caps went 1 for 3 on the power play but the lone goal came on their first attempt and they gave up a brutal shorthanded goal in the third period when Backstrom, Oveckhin, and Green all had nothing in the tank after a giveaway at the Leafs blue line. The Leafs were the WORST team in the league in shorthanded situations coming in and all the Caps could do with three man advantages was break even – not acceptable. The penalty killing didn’t get it done either going 2 for 4.
For the Leafs, Tosakala (34 saves) was superb except for the third Washington goal, and the star of the night, in my book, was Kessel. #81, who was acquired from Boston in the off-season but missed much of the first month due to a shoulder injury, was all over the ice and the Capitals defensemen struggled to match his speed and desire. Toronto is a vastly improved team from the club that Washington ran out of DC in the home opener.
Boudreau, who felt that the Caps “eased up after they were ahead and could not turn it back on,” has received close to top notch goaltending this season with the major exception being the last two evenings. With Semyon Varlamov likely out (groin pull) on the upcoming three game road trip (at Colorado on Tuesday, at Vancouver on Friday and at Edmonton on Saturday) either Theodore or Neuvirth are going to have to play better. It appears that #60 is the guy who needs to get it done and I’ll be honest, if he can’t regain his form then he is of no use to this team once Varlamov gets healthy. At least Neuvirth is young and I think his issues are confidence right now because he has been much better in the AHL. Hopefully goaltender coach Arturs Irbe can find a way to get #30 to settle down and just play hockey.
The Caps have an 11 point lead in the Southeast Division over the Atlanta Thrashers (Atlanta has 3 games in hand) and that has come with several injuries and numerous man games missed, including eight without Ovechkin. You may hear from some members of the media or blogosphere that Washington has inconsistencies or is not playing at a Stanley Cup level right now but I am not buying it. This is an Olympic year so the schedule is compressed so there will be nights when one team is gassed while the other is rested (like tonight in Toronto). The Caps still have the fewest regulation losses in the NHL and they are a Cup contender, anyone who says they are not doesn’t have a clue. Fact: You cannot win the Cup in the first three months of the season. Washington has a core group that positions them to go deep in the playoffs or win it all. Clearly they need to stay healthy, especially in goal with Varlamov, and GM George McPhee might need to make a move or two at the deadline to help put this team over the top (like the Penguins did last year with Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz). But that is months away so everyone needs to relax right now.