Although they lost their third straight game (0-2-1) on Saturday night in Toronto, the Washington Capitals played the brand of hockey they want to play and a brand of hockey that should produce more wins than losses over a full 82-game season. On this night, however, it left the Capitals on the short end of a 2-1 shootout loss.
Washington teed up an eye-popping total of 101 shots on Saturday night against the Maple Leafs and Toronto goaltender James Reimer, getting 50 of those shots on goal. The Leafs blocked 28 of the Capitals’ shot tries en route and 23 more missed the mark.
“Everyone has been asking me about shot totals,” sighs Caps defenseman John Carlson. “We put up a bunch of shots and don’t give up as many, and we still lose the game. It kind of stinks. I think we played a great hockey game from defense to offense and the goaltending was great. But we didn’t come out with the win.”
The Capitals had good chances to score right from the early stages of the game against the Leafs. After struggling their way through home ice losses to Pittsburgh and Montreal on home ice earlier in the week, and performing poorly in the first period of both games, the Caps forged a strong start against the Leafs on Saturday.
“I talked to the players after the game and I don’t ever do that,” says Caps coach Adam Oates, “because I blasted them pretty good this morning. And I complemented the [defense]. It was night and day. Night and day. We stuck to the game plan; we handled the pressure when they brought it. Obviously 50 shots, it took forever but we finally got one.”
Caps defensemen made crisp first passes out of their own end, often enabling Washington to get through neutral ice with speed, and to get pucks deep into the Toronto end. Once there, the Capitals were able to grind and cycle in the Leafs’ zone, and they were able to consistently funnel pucks to the net.
Most of Toronto’s good chances to score came off the rush, and Braden Holtby had the answer for those threats. Holtby kept the Leafs at bay in five-on-five play throughout the night.
Washington blueliners made good decisions with the puck at the offensive line, pinching judiciously and putting pucks behind the net when shooting lanes weren’t available. As a result, the Caps were able to play the territorial, “go north” style of game Oates favors.
“I think because we did a better job of not shooting ourselves in the foot,” says Oates, “and giving them a second and third chance and wearing ourselves out. We handled the pressure when it was there, we made a decent play, gave it to the next guy, got center and got it in, allowed ourselves to get into our game and before you know it you get into a rhythm and then you’re not tired. If you’re fighting uphill all night, you’ll become tired.”
The only thing the Caps weren’t able to do – and it’s something that has plagued everyone but Alex Ovechkin for the last three games – is put the puck in the net with regularity.
After a scoreless first frame, Toronto found the scoresheet first. Washington winger Eric Fehr took an offensive zone interference call at 8:49 of the first frame, the only infraction the Capitals incurred on the evening.
Past the midway point of Fehr’s sentence, the Leafs worked the puck around to Jake Gardiner at center point. Gardiner floated a wrist shot toward the Washington cage, and Leafs winger David Clarkson deftly deflected it past Holtby for a 1-0 Toronto lead at 10:08 of the second period.
There was a brief video review to ensure that Clarkson’s stick wasn’t too high when he deflected the disc, but there was little question.
Washington continued to cycle the puck and work and grind the Leafs hard in the Toronto end of the ice, and Holtby continued to seal off the odd Toronto chance, keeping the Capitals within striking distance.
The Caps finally broke through late in the third when Ovechkin (who else?) skated into the Toronto end and got to what could loosely be defined as “a pass” from Mike Green – getting a favorable bounce in the process – and rifled a shot past Reimer to finally draw Washington even at 1-1 with 4:10 left in regulation.
The two teams traded chances thereafter before the Leafs prevailed in the shootout.
“You’ve got to give [Reimer] credit,” says Oates. “He played a great game. He looked like he was not going to get beat. We snuck one by him, but he looked solid. Some of the PP chances, we’re walking down Broadway there with point blanks. He did a great job of handing it and controlling his rebounds. They protected him pretty good.
“For me, it’s more that we did the right things and we generated and we saw results that if we play that way we are going to get zone time and we are going to get opportunities.”
Power Moves – Toronto neutralized the threat of Ovechkin from his usual perch near the left dot on the Washington power play. That opened up the center point shot for Carlson, and the Washington defenseman teed off on the Caps’ first two power plays of the night in the second period. Teammates repeatedly set him up for one-timers, and Carlson repeatedly let them fly.
“If they’re going to take him away,” says Carlson, “someone else has to be open at some point and that was me for a while there until they made an adjustment going into the third. I would have liked to have one.”
Four of Carlson’s seven shots on goal for the game came on the Washington power play, and five of his 12 shot attempts came in a span of just 66 seconds on the Caps’ second man-advantage of the game.
“Our power play is obviously different than some other people’s,” Carlson notes. They took away most of all the low plays, so we did what we could. I’m shooting from 20 feet away. It’s a pretty good opportunity on a one-timer. Sometimes there are guys in front and it’s great, and sometimes they just block them.”
When Washington had its third and final extra-man opportunity of the game in the third period, the Leafs paid attention to both Carlson and Ovechkin, and the Caps countered by bringing Ovechkin right in front of the net to help create a screen.
“We tried,” says Oates. “It’s difficult because they clamp four guys down so tight. It makes it difficult. We’ve got to try and figure out better ways to get second and third chances on it. We’ll work on that the next few days.”
Shorthanded Slippage – Washington allowed at least one power play goal for the fifth consecutive game. The team’s penalty killing unit had been the best in the league earlier this season, but it has slipped to seventh with a kill rate of 84.9%.
This is Washington’s longest streak of surrendering at least one extra-man tally in a game since it started the 2012-13 season by permitting one or more such tallies in four straight games.
Secondary Struggles – Ovechkin has scored three goals in his last three games, and those are the only three goals Washington has mustered during that span.
The Caps’ captain has scored seven of his team’s last 11 goals, dating back to his overtime game-winner against Columbus on Nov. 12.
Tough Guy – Late in the second period, Caps center (and former Maple Leaf) Mikhail Grabovski was accidentally clipped in the face with a David Clarkson skate. As many of us would have done in similar circumstances, he lay prone on the ice for several seconds in the wake of the incident while play went on at the other end of the ice.
Perhaps suddenly realizing his face was bleeding, Grabovski sprang to his feet and immediately went to the Caps’ bench and down the tunnel for repairs. At this point, Grabovski was booed roundly by the Toronto crowd and vilified for trying to draw a penalty by the Toronto media.
Makes sense, right? They’re probably accustomed to assuming the worst up that way.
Anyway, Grabovski – playing in his first game in Toronto since the Leafs bought out his contract last summer – returned in the third period after some repairs, but he sported a pair of gnarly gashes on his face after the game. He’s a hockey player, and now he looks a little bit more like one than he did before the game.
“I think he did great,” says Oates of Grabovski. “He played a great game. He got cut pretty good. It was a pretty scary play, actually. He came back and he played a great game. He was a big part of us.”
Lineup Shakeup – With Washington seeking to avoid its first three-game skid since the second week of the season, Oates shook up two of his four forward units leading into tonight’s tilt in Toronto.
For the first time in exactly three weeks, Fehr was in the Capitals’ lineup. Fehr started the season as the team’s third line center, a new position for him. He was later dropped down to the middle of the fourth line and was last seen at right wing – his natural position – on the team’s top line during Ovechkin’s two-game absence because of an upper body injury at the outset of November.
On Saturday night, Fehr got his first taste of left wing this season and his first look on the second line, playing with Grabovski and Troy Brouwer. He squeezed off a dozen shot attempts (five on net, four that were blocked and three that missed) in 16:56 of work on the night.
“I thought we had a lot of good chances,” says Fehr of his line. “It’s unfortunate that we weren’t able to put one in. I thought we did a lot of good things after the first couple of shifts in the first when we played in our end a little bit.”
For a guy who had been a healthy scratch for nine straight games, Fehr didn’t exhibit much rust.
“It felt pretty good,” he says. “That was a fast game, I think. It was up and down the ice. But I felt like my conditioning was pretty good and I felt involved in most of the play.”
Oates moved Brooks Laich to the middle of a line with Jason Chimera and Joel Ward, and that trio had success right from the start. Each of the three had a strong scoring chance on their very first shift of the game.
Fehr’s line combined for 24 shot attempts, including 12 on net. Laich’s line also produced 24 shot attempts, with 12 going on goal.
Laich had been bouncing from left wing to center on the second line for the previous month, always playing with Brouwer and with one of Grabovksi, Erat or Marcus Johansson. Laich hadn’t been able to sustain any consistency with any of those combinations, and Oates mentioned on Saturday morning that one reason behind Saturday's line changes was to try to get Laich going.
Before they took the ice together as linemates on Saturday night, Chimera took his longtime teammate aside for a short chat.
“I told [Laich] before the game,” says Chimera, “‘You don’t have to think with us, just go. Dump pucks in go get them.’ I think for the most part we had a good game. It seemed like we had five or six chances each.
“For whatever reason, it didn’t go in, but I thought we played a pretty good game out there. It was nice to see, because Brooksie has been struggling. With me and Wardo, we all got a little more [offensive] zone time. It was fun to play out there.”
Horizontally And Vertically Versatile – Just 24 games into the 2013-14 season, Fehr has now played on all four of Washington’s forward lines at one point or another and he has also played all three forward positions.
Saturday Night Special – Holtby’s strong play in Saturday games continued on Saturday as he stopped 27 of the 28 shots he faced.
Lifetime in Saturday games, Holtby is 12-3-1 with three shutouts, a 2.00 GAA and a .934 save pct.
Fifty Mission Caps – Washington had 50 shots on goal in a game for the first time since March 8, 2010 when it amassed 52 shots on net in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Dallas Stars at Verizon Center.
The last time the Caps had 50 or more shots in a road game was when they had 50 on the nose in a 5-1 loss to the Thrashers in Atlanta on March 16, 2009.
More Miles than Money – Caps assistant equipment manager Craig “Woody” Leydig worked in his 2,000th NHL game on Saturday in the game in Toronto. Leydig’s first NHL game was way back in the 1987-88 season with the New York Islanders in a game at Vancouver on Oct. 10, 1987.
Ronald Reagan still occupied the White House in those days, and Islanders dynasty holdovers and future Hockey Hall of Famers Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier and Billy Smith still patrolled the ice for the Isles.
Congratulations, Woody, and many thousands more.
Happy Birthday – Backstrom celebrated his 26th birthday on Saturday.
Six years ago on his birthday during his rookie NHL season, Backstrom supplied the overtime game-winner in Bruce Boudreau’s debut as Washington’s bench boss, a 4-3 win over the Flyers in Philadelphia.
Which, of course, led to an Ovechkin-authored shaving cream pie to Backstrom’s mug after the game.
Down On The Farm – The AHL Hershey Bears hosted the Binghamton Senators at Giant Center on Saturday night.
The Bears roared out to a 3-0 first period lead with three goals in a span of just 97 seconds just after the midpoint of the frame.
With help from Jeff Taffe and Nathan Walker, Casey Wellman started the scoring at 11:17, netting his seventh of the season. A mere 30 seconds later, Dmitry Orlov scored his third of the season, Derek Whitmore and Ryan Stoa drawing the assists.
Hershey expanded its lead to 3-0 at 12:54 of the first when Peter LeBlanc bagged his fifth of the season with a single assist from Cameron Schilling.
Binghamton got one back late in the second period to make it a 3-1 contest heading into the final frame, and the Senators struck again early in the third to make it a 3-2 game.
Hershey’s Brandon Segal restored the cushion to two goals at 11:13 of the third with a solo assist from Whitmore, making it a 4-2 game.
After four even-strength goals to start the game for the Bears, defenseman Julien Brouillette scored on a Bears power play with 3:11 remaining to ice it for the home team and account for the remainder of the scoring. LeBlanc and David Kolomatis collected the assists on the extra-man tally.
Philipp Grubauer made 29 stops for the Bears to run his record to 3-3-1-1 on the season.
Hershey entertains the Baby Sens again at Giant Center on Sunday afternoon.
Down a level, the ECHL Reading Royals spent Saturday night in Cincinnati taking on the Cyclones.
Reading surrendered a goal in each period en route to a 3-0 loss to the Cyclones. Netminder Riley Gill made 27 saves in a losing effort.
The 9-5 Royals retain first place in the Atlantic Division, two points ahead of Wheeling.
By the Numbers – Ovechkin led the Capitals with eight hits on the night … Ovechkin, Fehr and Carlson all reached double-digit totals in shot attempts on the night … The Capitals are now 2-3-2 in Saturday games this season … Washington is 0-1-1 in games in which it has 40 or more shots on goal in 2013-14.