March 16 vs. Toronto Maple Leafs at Verizon Center
Time: 3:00 p.m.
TV: Comcast SportsNet
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
Toronto Maple Leafs (36-24-8)
Washington Capitals (31-27-10)
Washington closes out a quick two-game homestand and its season’s series with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday when the Leafs come to the District for a matinee match.
Fresh from a 4-3 win over the Vancouver Canucks at Verizon Center on Friday night, the Caps are in dire need of two more points in Sunday’s game against the Leafs. Washington heads west immediately after the game for a three-game Western road trip against the top three teams in the Pacific Division, which also happen to be three of the top eight teams in the circuit.
With only 14 games remaining, the Caps are on the outside of the playoff picture. Points are at a premium, and Washington is just 12-16-5 on the road this season. The Caps have to win their home games, and they are 5-2-1 in their last eight games in the District.
Washington came away with a key win on Friday, but that game means little unless the Caps can follow up with another win on Sunday against the Leafs.
“It’s important that we get our games here and our confidence up so that we are at the top of our game on that road trip,” says Caps defenseman Mike Green, who netted the game-winning goal against Vancouver. “It’s not going to be easy, especially out west. So we’ll take all the confidence we can get.”
Making his fourth straight start in goal for Washington, Jaroslav Halak made 38 stops against the Canucks to secure victory for the Capitals in Friday’s game. For Halak, the 38 saves represents a single-game high for the season, and the most he has made in any NHL game in more than two years. While he was still a member of the St. Louis Blues, Halak made 43 saves in a March 13, 2012 game against the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hawks won that game 4-3 in the shootout.
“I think it’s great because we lost two games in a row to Pittsburgh and we needed to get the two points tonight,” said Halak after the game. “I’m real happy that the guys scored four goals for me. It was huge, especially in the third.”
It’s been a while since Halak has had that much offensive support, too. He had been on the wrong end of a shutout in two of his previous four starts, and he had averaged just two goals worth of offensive support per game in his previous eight starts, a span in which he went 3-4-1. He needed all four of those goals on Friday.
The Caps owned a 3-1 lead going into the third, but they spent the final frame under siege in their own end. Vancouver outshot the Caps 17-3 in the third, and the Canucks scored twice in the first eight minutes to tie the game at 3-3. But Mike Green scored on Washington’s first shot on goal of the period at 10:19 to give Halak all the offense he would require.
“When you score four goals you should win the game, that’s for sure,” says Halak. “Going into the third period leading 3-1, we can’t lose it. We have to play better I have to stop at least one of those. But I’m happy the guys came through in the third; they scored big fourth goal for us.”
Halak came to the Caps in a deal with St. Louis at the trade deadline, and he joined his new Washington teammates on the road. The Caps were in the midst of playing five games in seven nights in four cities at the time, but after a day off and a couple of practices with the team, Halak is beginning to feel more comfortable in his new surroundings.
“I’m still adjusting to everything and I’m sure the guys feel the same way about me on the ice,” says Halak. “But like I’ve said before, we need to do it fast. We don’t have much hockey left; we’ve got to get on the same page.”
Caps winger Evgeny Kuznetsov, playing in just his third NHL game, assisted on each of Washington’s last three goals in Friday’s game against the Canucks. He made a brilliant slap pass off the rush to set up Tom Wilson’s third goal of the season and Washington’s third goal of the game on Friday.
The 21-year-old forward played in his first NHL game Monday night against the Penguins at Verizon Center, and he has averaged a modest 11:44 of ice time per game in his first three games in the league.
With each shift, Kuznetsov seems to be gaining more confidence. He spent the early part of the 2013-14 season playing in the KHL and is getting his first sustained taste of North American hockey at the professional level.
“I think it’s very difficult,” says Caps coach Adam Oates of Kuznetsov’s transition. “I think it’s different than a junior kid or a college kid who at the end of the season comes in and plays in a couple of games. He’s played pro, but he’s never played our hockey ever. To come over here, the rink size is obviously different, but all the teams play different and there is way more contact in our game. I think there are a tremendous amount of differences.”
Kuznetsov has been playing on Washington’s fourth line, and his offensive contributions have been especially welcome in light of the ongoing even-strength slump that has afflicted the Caps’ top six forwards over the last two weeks.
In Washington’s first game back from the Olympic break – a 5-4 win over the Panthers in Florida on Feb. 27 – each member of the Caps’ top line scored an even-strength goal. Brooks Laich scored in the first period, Nicklas Backstrom in the second period and Alex Ovechkin netted the game-winner in the third.
But in the eight games the Caps have played since, Washington’s top six forwards have combined for only three of the 13 even-strength goals the team has scored over that span. What’s more, two of those three goals were scored while those players were on a line with two “bottom six” forwards and the other was scored in a four-on-four situation.
“Going down the stretch here, teams are tightening up defensively,” says caps right wing Troy Brouwer, whose last even-strength goal was the aforementioned four-on-four goal in Phialdelphia on March 5. “Teams are making sure of those match-ups on the ice; a top D against our top forwards, and it only gets tougher from here. Those guys have got to work harder, Ovi’s line and my line.
“We’ve got to try and create, work to get open, work to create chances, work to create opportunities. Going into the playoffs or later in the stretch, it just tightens up even more. Teams are getting into playoff mode, which is no-mistake hockey and 2-1 games. We need to find ways to create opportunities for ourselves and then when we create those opportunities, we’ve got to finish.”
Fortunately for the Caps, the team’s third line of Jason Chimera, Eric Fehr and Joel Ward has been consistently solid all season. That trio is the only current Washington forward group that is comprised entirely of players with double-digit goal totals this season.
Ward has a career high of 19 goals. Fehr’s 25 points match his second-best season in the NHL and Chimera’s 23 assists are a single-season best.
Ward scored the game’s first goal in Friday’s win, a play that was started by Chimera’s brilliant pass to Fehr. Chimera has made a living with his wheels more than his hands, but he has exhibited a sublime passing touch at times this season.
“I think I helped him out with that one,” divulges Fehr. “I was screaming at him. He didn’t actually see me. I was screaming at him and he just kind of knew where I was.
“But as a general rule with his playmaking, he is seeing the ice really well right now. I think for me and Wardo playing with Chimmer, he knows where we are going to be. It makes it easier for him to put the puck into areas and he knows we will be there to get them.”
“He’s been making plays,” says Ward of Chimera. “I think it’s a new stick, new curve. He was using some paddle before. I think he changed his curve a little bit and he has definitely been making some passes that have been taking some of us off guard.”
At least one member of the Chimera-Fehr-Ward unit has been on the ice for nine of the Capitals last 12 five-on-five goals.
Toronto has been where Washington is headed after Sunday’s game, that is, the West Coast. In the middle of a five-game road trip, the Leafs defeated the Ducks in Anaheim on Monday, fell to the Sharks in San Jose on Tuesday and downed the Kings in Los Angeles on Thursday.
The Caps would be thrilled if they can go out west and come back east with four points as the Leafs have just done.
Toronto practiced at Kettler on Saturday, and its long road journey will conclude with a Tuesday night visit with the Red Wings in Detroit.
The Leafs appear to be headed toward a second straight berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in a decade.
On their last trip to town on Jan. 10, the Maple Leafs suffered a 3-2 loss to the Caps and goaltender Michal Neuvirth. Since then, the fortunes of the two teams have headed in opposite directions. The Leafs are 15-4-3 since that contest while Washington is just 9-11-4.