Those headed to Capital One Arena for Tuesday night’s tilt between the Capitals and the Toronto Maple Leafs likely had visions of a barnburner dancing in their heads. Not quite two weeks into the 2017-18 regular season, these were two of the NHL’s most offensively prolific teams. They were also two of the most defensively challenged teams in the early going. The last time they hooked up here in Washington during the regular season, the Caps managed a 6-5 overtime victory.
As is so often the case in situations such as these, expectations went out the window. Toronto prevailed 2-0, tacking on an empty-netter in the waning seconds after Connor Brown netted what would prove to be the game-winning tally early in the third. Leafs netminder Frederik Andersen stopped all 30 shots to record his first shutout of the season and the second of his career against the Capitals.
While the outcome didn’t at all please the Capitals, they took some comfort in a much-improved performance, coming on the heels of an ugly 8-2 loss to the Flyers in Philadelphia on Saturday.
“Obviously they’re the number one offense in the league, and they’re real dangerous,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz of the Leafs. “There were a lot of improvements from our game in Philadelphia, that’s for sure.
“Early, we made a few mistakes, turned a few pucks over and didn’t get them deep when we needed to – especially through the neutral zone – and they sort of countered on us. After that, we settled into the game a little bit. I thought it was pretty even after that. They scored on their chance, we just needed to score on ours.”
Toronto came out with some bounce in its game, and only the good goaltending of Braden Holtby and some fortuitous luck kept the Caps from falling into an early ditch.
William Nylander cut right through the middle of the ice untouched on the game’s first shift, only to misfire on his shot that might have given Toronto a lead before the game was even 15 seconds old. The Leafs also overpassed themselves out of some scoring chances, and missed a few more yawning and semi-yawning cages in the first.
Holtby had to flash his right pad to deny a glorious James van Riemsdyk chance near the two-minute mark of the first period, a bid that turned out to be Toronto’s only shot from inside 25 feet during the first frame.
The Caps settled in a bit better in the second half of the first, but their best scoring chance came late in the frame, when Alex Ovechkin just missed from his office on a Washington power play.
Another Caps power play in the second also produced zone time, looks, and shots, but no lamplighters. Washington didn’t manage to register a shot from inside of 25 feet until the game was nearly 25 minutes old; that’s when Ovechkin quickly fired twice from that range, with Andersen supplying the stop on both.
By the time the Caps were able to generate another shot from that close to the Toronto cage, the third period would be more than halfway over and the Leafs would have all the offense they would require on this night.
Toronto tallied the game-winner on an extended offensive-zone shift in which at least three Washington clearing tries failed. Caps defenseman Christian Djoos put the puck off the boards in an effort to get it out, but Morgan Rielly flagged it down at the left point and put it on net. Evgeny Kuznetsov, who had been on the ice for 106 seconds at that point, wasn’t able to tie up Brown in front, and the latter tucked a soft shot through Holtby’s legs at 5:53.
“[Rielly] made a good play to keep that puck alive,” recounts Brown. “I think he did it one other time on that shift. I just tried to stand on top of the goalie, and [Rielly] made a nice little [play] to get it through. I was in the right place at the right time.”
The Caps’ best chance to pull even came with less than six minutes left. Nylander coughed the puck up in front of Andersen, and the Caps’ Jakub Vrana was right there to collect it. He fired quickly, and Andersen made the stop. But Vrana grabbed the rebound and tried again from even closer, only to be denied again.
Nazem Kadri’s empty-netter at 19:38 sealed the Caps’ fate, sending them to their fourth loss in their last five games (1-3-1).
“We started real good,” says Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “I thought we got a little carried away in the second period, but a good win for us. Big goal by Brown obviously.
“I thought we were really skating at the start [and then] we kind of got involved in their game, rushing up and down the ice instead of playing more heavy on the cycle. But it’s still a big win for our team. We turned over a few too many pucks, but a big win.”
Caps center Lars Eller missed Tuesday’s game because of illness, and Tyler Graovac got a sweater and Eller’s third-line pivot role in the Danish center’s absence. But Graovac left for the night before the first was halfway over, taking a Matt Martin hit that appeared to jolt him.
According to the Caps, Graovac suffered an upper body injury. Trotz said more information as to Graovac’s condition/prognosis should be available on Wednesday.
“He’s going to miss a little bit of time here,” says Trotz.