With their backs nearly up against the wall, the Washington Capitals came out in game four on Wednesday night with their best period of hockey of the post season to take a 4-1 lead after 20 minutes. Then they did what was necessary to win, 5-4, to even up this best of seven series with the young and pesky Toronto Maple Leafs at two games apiece. Game five is Friday night at the Verizon Center.
Like they did in game three, the Caps really came out flying and once again it was the top line leading the charge. Washington did a great job at getting pucks deep and to the net early and often. That led to an offensive zone faceoff and they cashed in with a T.J. Oshie tally at 2:58. Nicklas Backstrom fed the Osh Babe for a goal into a wide open cage after a smart point shot from Nate Schmidt came off of the backboards to #19, who won a battle in front.
On the faceoff right after the goal, Evgeny Kuznetsov had a partial breakaway and he just barely missed making it 2-0. But the third line, which saw Tom Wilson get added to it for this tilt, kept up the heat and Lars Eller drew a high stick on Toronto. The Caps power play then scored in just 36 seconds with Alex Ovechkin notching his 3rd goal in four games on a rocket of a shot. Backstrom forced a turnover on the right wing wall that ended up with Kevin Shattenkirk and Shatty set up the Gr8 perfectly for the one timer just 4:34 into this one to make it 2-0.
The prosperity didn’t last too long as Zach Hyman scored on a deflection in front at 5:16 and a track meet appeared to be on. With just over 13 minutes gone, the Leafs were pressuring and a shot trickled through Holtby and was rolling on edge heading for the goal line when Willy stretched out and knocked it away from the net, under Holtby and out of the crease. That was a major turning point because the Capitals Eller immediately got the puck from Dmitry Orlov thereafter and skated down the right wing boards. #20 then circled behind the net and when he got into the left wing circle he fired it on the cage. “Johnny on the spot” was #43 to the side of the goal and he deflected the puck home to make it 3-1.
Wilson would then add another huge tally on a two on one rush to make it 4-1 at 16:04. Brooks Orpik lifted a great high clear over the heavy Leafs forecheck to Andre Burakovsky and he gave Willy a great pass. Tom then looked like a 30 goal scorer the way he quickly elevated the biscuit over Frederik Andersen’s left pad and into the cage.
In the middle frame, the Leafs cut the margin to 4-2 on another deflected shot on a power play. Backstrom took a holding call and James Van Riemsdyk lasered one off of Orlov’s stick and past Holtby. From there the Capitals played a strong second period and appeared to be headed to period three with a safe 4-2 lead. They would maintain that two goal advantage, but Eller and Orpik both took undisciplined penalties within three seconds of each other and so the deadly Leafs power play would have 1:55 of two man advantage time to start the final frame.
The Caps managed to kill them both, thanks to some great goaltending by the Holtbeast and super individual battle victories by several players, including Matt Niskanen and John Carlson. Washington continued to press the attack after that and appeared to take a 5-2 lead at 8:11 on a Schmidt tally. Ovechkin was cross checked in front setting a screen while Jake Gardiner was tied up with Backstrom at the side of the net, outside of the crease. Andersen initiated contact with #19 with his glove and then Gardiner hit his own goalie in the head with his stick. Gardiner tried to take Backstrom into the crease, but Nicky put his arms straight up when shoved by #51 and Andersen moved to his right. The shot came in and went top corner, but bad zebra Chris Lee immediately waved it off for goalie interference. The Caps challenged and they still didn’t give Washington what should’ve been a goal, but that’s what happens when the inmates run the asylum and get to review the call themselves. It was pure rubbish and should’ve been a 5-2 game, at that point. It’s spin the wheel these days on goalie interference calls because there is NO consistency to the rulings.
That non goal would be a little costly as Auston Matthews then scored in front on the rebound off of a point shot that hit traffic on the way in and confused Holtby. That marker came with eight minutes left and suddenly the Air Canada Centre was hopping. However, the Caps responded just 59 seconds later to restore a two puck lead.
Burakovsky carried the disc into the offensive zone and instead of getting it deep, mistakenly he turned into the middle just inside the blueline. The Leafs then knocked it away from him, but it bounced right to Backstrom, who was in stellar puck support position. Oshie alertly kept going towards the net on the play and #19 fed him the rubber. The Osh Babe buried it to make it 5-3.
Pay the Man!
Washington mostly played well from there on out, although they iced the puck a few too many times for my liking. One of those allowed the Leafs to cut it to 5-4 on a Tyler Bozak tally from the paint with 26 seconds left. Toronto got one more chance, then the horn sounded, and it’s now back to home ice for the Caps.
Whew, what a game!
The Caps rode their top guys in this one and they delivered. The Ovechkin-Backstrom-Oshie line was downright dominant and the newly formed third line of Burakovsky-Eller-Wilson performed exceptionally, as well. Wilson (2 goals in 13:40) was just outstanding and he is playing the best hockey of his career against his home town team.
Toronto continues to do a great job of getting bodies and pucks to the net and they are getting good bounces. Washington did more of that in this one, too, and it paid off. Overall, the Capitals won the majority of the battles for 40 minutes and then the Leafs desperation took over in the final frame, at times.
The Capitals still need to be better in their breakouts when the Leafs are forechecking hard and the high lifter out of the zone is not a bad option (see the Caps fourth goal). Toronto has been doing that effectively, as well, in this very close series.
Owning the big moments has been a theme for Coach Barry Trotz and after not doing that with a 3-1 lead and a five on three power play in game three, they got some retribution by killing off the Leafs five on three to start period three. It was a huge shorthanded effort and it was done without some of their best PK guys. Orpik and Eller were in the box and Karl Alzner missed his second straight contest with an upper body injury.
After playing just over 15 minutes in game three, Coach Trotz said he needed to get Ovi more ice time in game four. The Gr8 logged 16:31, with only 36 seconds of it on the power play. There were a couple of times when the coach put the top line back out quickly after a previous shift, especially when the draw was in the offensive zone. That line is really going and I’d still like to see them play more because Toronto has no answer for them and that’s when the Capitals are dominating the game. It was Ovechkin’s line that had some of the few third period chances and they had the goal that should’ve made it 5-2. The best defense is a good offense, especially in this series, and it doesn’t appear that Toronto has an answer for Ovechkin and his linemates. So it’s imperative that the Capitals not sit those guys and sit back with a lead going forward.
Now, let’s discuss those guys in stripes. It was not a good night for them. In addition to fabricating the goalie interference call, they repeatedly let numerous Toronto holds and trips go throughout the tilt. Leo Komarov blatantly held Backstrom’s stick with the net empty late and it wasn’t called (yet Nicky was jailed for the same thing in period two). Outside of the no goal call, my biggest beef, though, is the way Coach Mike Babcock is just using the spineless zebras to gain more time for his club on icings by purposely putting the wrong players on the ice. He did this very effectively in overtime in game two, as well. From here on out in the series, if the Leafs don’t keep the right guys on the ice after an icing, it should be an automatic delay of game call against the Toronto bench. It’s a joke the way Babcock has been daring the referees to call him for doing that and they’ve backed down like chickens.
At the end of the night, the Caps played a strong game and won. They brought their best game of the series and can still improve on their performance. Toronto presses on all fronts and the Capitals have to make sure they are smart all 60 minutes by making quick and crisp breakouts and putting pucks and bodies to the net, like the Leafs are doing when they are in the Washington end.
After three games, Matthews said that the Leafs wanted it more and that’s why they were winning the series. Washington, however, showed their will in game four and grabbed back home ice advantage.
This is now a best of three affair.
Notes: Carlson was +3 in 21:49 of ice time and played his best game since his late season injury…Trotz rode Niskanen (25:38) and Orlov (23:31) on the back end. Shattenkirk (1 assist) only played 12:54. He took a hard hit in period three and seemed to be in some discomfort…the Caps were 1 for 1 on the power play while the Leafs went 1 for 4 in 5:08 of advantage time…shot attempts were 67-56 for Toronto. All of that margin, and then some, came after it was 4-1…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 32-29…the Leafs had 29 giveaways to the Caps nine. I’m not sure that stat is totally accurate (the Caps number seems low), but Washington did force a ton of first period turnovers with their strong forecheck and pressure…Gardiner played 25:38 for Toronto to lead their squad in time on ice.