With three road wins in four tries on a season long five game trip, the Washington Capitals kept the hammer down in the Big Smoke on Tuesday night with a dominating 4-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Philipp Grubauer made 27 saves in the triumph and the Caps are now 53-18-8 (114 points). They are just a Capitals point gained or a point lost by the Pittsburgh Penguins during the last three games from clinching the Metropolitan Division title and their third Presidents’ Trophy.
With the Leafs playing in Buffalo on Monday night, it was imperative that Washington get up on Toronto to make a weary team expend a lot of energy playing catch up. The Caps game plan was pretty simple early and throughout the contest, get pucks deep on the Leafs D and forecheck them. Alex Ovechkin (1 assist) was really bringing the hammer on Coach Mike Babcock’s players and his four hits definitely opened up the ice for Washington while wearing out Toronto.
From the get go, the Capitals third line of Brett Connolly (two assists), Lars Eller (goal), and Andre Burakovsky (assist) were superior to any Toronto line they faced, which was predominantly the James Van Riemsdyk, Mitch Marner, and Tyler Bozak trio. Eller would break the ice for the Caps at 14:34 of period one when Burakovsky made a great play to negate an icing call and then the triumvirate cycled the puck beautifully until #65 found Eller in the slot and #20 buried it by Curtis McElhinney for his 12th goal of the season.
Washington would dominate that opening frame with a 13-3 lead in shots on goal and a 22-14 margin in shot attempts. Toronto had very few scoring chances on Grubauer because the Caps had the puck a lot and they defended the front of their own net very well.
Speaking of beautiful, that is a goal that really broke this game open, a bit. Eller drew a holding the stick call on Marner and that put the Caps on the man advantage 8:34 into period two. Boy did the Caps power play look daunting, too. With Nicklas Backstrom and Kevin Shattenkirk running the show at the half wall and top of the point, respectively, and the other three guys moving around well, the Leafs had no clue what to defend. It all broke down for Toronto when Ovechkin rotated to the top of the point and #22 went into Ovi’s office. With the Leafs so focused on the Gr8, the cross ice lane from Backstrom to Shattenkirk across the top of the circles was wide open. Backstrom’s feed to Shattenkirk was perfect and Kevin one-timed it home for his first goal as a Capital. That made it 2-0 at the game’s halfway point.
From there, Washington really played smart and forced Toronto to have to go into their own end and retrieve pucks often. While the Leafs closed the gap by one in shot attempts after two periods, to 41-34, the shots on goal were 26-13.
In the third period, the Caps didn’t sit back and they upped their lead to 3-0 when Nate Schmidt tallied off of a great feed from Connolly at 8:11. #88 was in the game because John Carlson was a late scratch due to a lower body injury (He is day to day and will not play against the Rangers on Wednesday night). Schmidty was excellent in this affair and he was paired for the first time in recent memory with Karl Alzner. They were the lowest pair in terms of time on ice, but with Coach Trotz playing the matchups against Babcock, Washington’s depth took over and those guys were +3, with two of those goals coming with the Eller line.
The last goal for Washington was tallied by Tom Wilson on a breakaway. Daniel Winnik and Jay Beagle made great plays inside the Caps defensive zone to get the puck out and then #26 flipped it high in the air over the Leafs defensemen and #43 flew in and beat McElhinney on the backhand. It was a well deserved goal for Wilson, who protected his goalies and teammates all night from some Toronto cheap stuff (Matt Martin’s push of Matt Niskanen into the net and Marner’s ice spray face wash of Grubauer).
The Leafs would get a very late PP goal from Marner to avoid being shut out.
Overall, this was a very solid game by the Capitals. Their defensive posture has really improved over the last two contests and what I really liked against Toronto was that I’m having a hard time remembering if the Leafs even had an odd man rush in this affair. Recently the Caps have been breaking down and giving those up en masse. That was not the case in the Big Smoke and as everyone knows, “Defense Wins Championships.”
The defense was certainly there on Tuesday night and the Capitals used their size and depth up front to dominate a Toronto team that is on the verge of clinching a playoff berth. It was a confidence building win for Washington against a club they very well could face in the first round of the playoffs.
Notes: final shots on goal were 38-28 and shot attempts were 58-55 for the Caps…Eller and Connolly were both +2 and Burakovsky was +1. Eller drew two penalties…the only mistake that line really made all night was #65’s penalty with 2:15 remaining which ultimately cost Gruabuer the shutout…the Caps lost the face off battle, 30-28, but Eller was 8-4…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 23:34 and his partner, Dmitry Orlov logged 22:10…Schmidt played 14:11 while Alzner had 16:00 of time on ice…the Caps-Rangers game is at 8 pm on Wednesday night on NBC Sports Channel. It will likely be Braden Holtby against Henrik Lundqvist in net.