Hometown boy Tom Wilson scored what turned out to be the game winning goal shorthanded and also added an assist on Toronto native Brett Connolly’s 15th tally of the season as the Washington Capitals defeated the Maple Leafs, 3-2, on Thursday night. Braden Holtby made 40 saves and Alex Ovechkin notched his league leading 43rd lamp lighter of the campaign on the power play to open the scoring. Andreas Johnsson and John Tavares added third period markers for the Leafs, who were playing without Cap killer Nazem Kadri (out with a concussion suffered in Tuesday’s OT loss to St. Louis).
This was the fifth of a sixth game road trip for the Capitals, who flew from Los Angeles to Toronto on Tuesday afternoon. The Caps played very well against Mike Babcock’s Stanley Cup contending team, employing a strong defensive zone system to hold a very high scoring club to just two red lights, one of which came with 32 seconds remaining and the goalie pulled (Tavares’ 34th goal). Washington did a lot of what they did last post season, they kept five defenders in tight in front of the Holtbeast and made the Leafs have to fight to get to the front of the cage. The strategy was largely successful, although Toronto had some super looks that Holtby stopped throughout the contest. Braden also did get some crossbar help on a rebound in period one when the game was scoreless.
It wasn’t until 3:54 into period two that someone scored. Evgeny Kuznetsov drew a holding penalty on Morgan Reilly and 16 seconds later Washington had the lead. The tally came off of an offensive zone draw with T.J. Oshie getting the puck to John Carlson at the point. Carly then fed the Gr8 for a rocket from inside the left blue line that beat Frederik Andersen (25 saves) to his glove side while he was moving to his right. It was vintage Ovechkin and he always seems to be able to elevate his game in the Big Smoke.
At the 12:07 mark, the Capitals extended their scoreboard advantage. Willy went in behind the net and put a big hit on Jake Gardiner knocking him to the ground to force a turnover. Willy’s skate touched the puck and Lars Eller quickly scooped it up. Tiger fed Connolly in the slot; Conno made a nice move to get Andersen to commit and then he slid the puck around Andersen’s right pad into the yawning cage.
Washington took that 2-0 lead into the final frame and it was a defensive zone face off loss that put Toronto on the board. Eller did not win the draw and the Leafs scored back door to gain some life at the 4:23 mark. Carlson subsequently took a hooking penalty at 5:48 and it looked like the home team had all of the momentum, at that point. Eller, however, would end any of that with a defensive zone grab of a rebound and then he carried the puck up the ice quickly two on one with a hard charging Top Line Tommy. Lars put the puck right on Willy’s stick in the slot and the big winger fired a sparkling shot top shelf up over Andersen’s shoulder into the left corner to squelch any momentum and restore the two goal cushion.
From there, the Capitals played smart and hard on the puck getting chances to extend the lead, but Andersen was playing well, too. Toronto, however, was relentless and ended up putting 21 shots on net in the final frame. Tavares’ marker with 32 seconds left came with Andersen on the bench for the extra attacker and was the result of a weird bounce off of a failed Cap clear into the slot. Washington bench boss Todd Reirden responded by putting Nicklas Backstrom, Eller, and Oshie on the ice at forward and the Caps closed things out to pick up points five and six on this critical road trip with Saturday’s afternoon tilt in Buffalo still looming.
Overall, this was a solid win. It wasn’t as good as their best effort of the season in San Jose, but considering the opponent and the fact that the Leafs were 2-0 against Washington in 2018-19, it was up there as far as quality victories go while the Capitals are defending Stanley Cup Champions.
Several players had super games to include Wilson and Eller (2 assists), but I really liked the performance from Dmitry Orlov, which I’ll put up there as one of his best outings of the season. Dima was strong with the puck and was outstanding with his breakouts. He and Matt Niskanen faced Auston Matthews or Tavares and their line mates much of the night and did extremely well. They both played just over 22 minutes and are starting to look like the dominating shutdown duo that they were in 2017-18.
The Capitals fourth line of Chandler Stephenson, Nic Dowd, and Travis Boyd turned in one of that unit’s better games. With Devante Smith-Pelly waived then assigned to Hershey on Thursday and Carl Hagelin coming in from LA via trade (for a 3rd and 6th round draft pick – the Kings kept 50% of Carl’s salary), the heat is on for playing time and that trio delivered against a very talented club. The speedy Hagelin, who historically has killed the Capitals in the post season (5-1 in playoff series vs. WAS), is set to practice with Washington in Buffalo on Friday and then suit up for Saturday’s 1 pm matinee there. Coach Reirden will have to pull someone out of the lineup so that #62 can play. Hagelin is a very good penalty killer, so the hope is that he can help a special teams group that has struggled most of the season.
In three of the last four games the Caps have played a style that was reminiscent of what they employed last spring and has resulted in triumphs in San Jose, Los Angeles, and Toronto. Yes, the Anaheim game was a dud, but overall the Capitals look fresher and more engaged since the All Star Game and bye week break (7-3-1). They need to be because the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference standings are really tight. The Caps improved to 34-20-7 (75 points) and trail the New York Islanders by two points, but the Islanders have a game in hand. In third place are the Penguins with 71 points, but fourth place Carolina is at 70 points and Columbus is next at 69 points. It is expected that the Blue Jackets will have to move both Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky by Monday’s trade deadline since each has said they will not sign a long term deal to stay in Ohio.
Standings points are critical at this juncture, and for the Caps, they did enough good things and once again received stellar goaltending from the Holtbeast to prevail in a very tough building.
Notes: The Caps were creamed on face offs again, 36-17. Dowd was the best, going 4-4…shot attempts were 89-65 for Toronto, but the quality chances were pretty even. The Caps are doing a better job of keeping opponents on the perimeter…the Capitals were 1 for 3 on the power play and 2 for 2 while shorthanded…the Caps blocked 21 shots. Wilson and Brooks Orpik each had 4…hits were 35-17 for the Capitals. Orpik, Wilson, and Dowd led the team with five…Norris Trophy Carlson led all skaters for both teams in ice time with 26:43.