Washington got all the offense it would need over a span of 5:10 in the first half of the first frame, and the Caps held on the rest of the way to take a 4-2 decision from the Toronto Maple Leafs at Verizon Center on Sunday afternoon.
The Caps dominated the first frame, and the Leafs owned the second. Washington was able to play a strong third period defensively, enabling it to usher a second straight win to the final buzzer.
“Obviously we were pretty flat the first period,” admits Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle. “We didn’t really skate. It looked like we were still in for our afternoon nap. Playing an afternoon game just took us a good part of the game to get warmed up and get awake for us. We gave ourselves a chance to get back into the hockey game by scoring a couple of goals.”
When Leafs forward Jay McClement was deemed guilty of hooking Caps defenseman Mike Green at 2:58 of the first, Washington had its first power play opportunity of the game, a penalty the Leafs would have to try to kill it without the league’s most often deployed (average of 3:34 in shorthanded ice time per game) penalty-killing forward.
The Caps needed only 36 seconds with which to make the Maple Leafs pay. After Mike Green’s shot from center point deflected off the left post, the Capitals recovered and worked the puck around to the right side. Nicklas Backstrom passed from his spot on the half wall to Marcus Johansson down on the goal line just off the right post. Johansson quickly snapped a pass to Troy Brouwer in the diamond, and Brouwer’s shot beat Toronto netminder James Reimer to the far side for a 1-0 Caps lead at 3:34 of the first frame.
A few minutes later, Washington struck again. On a grinding, cycling shift from the trio of Jason Chimera, Eric Fehr and Joel Ward, the three were able to work the puck out to Karl Alzner at center point. Alzner floated a wrist shot toward the net, and it fell at the top of the paint after Reimer stopped it. Ward was right there to backhand it toward the net, and it glanced in off Chimera’s skate blade for a 2-0 Washington advantage at 6:57 of the first.
Toronto defenseman Dion Phaneuf was whistled for slashing at 7:52, and once again, the Caps made Toronto pay with a power-play goal from the diamond spot. This time it was Ward lighting the lamp with a pretty primary assist from Dustin Penner along the goal line and secondary assistance from Evgeny Kuznetsov for a 3-0 Caps lead at 8:44 of the first.
Washington kept the heat on the Leafs thereafter, too, buzzing the Toronto zone for more offense. The Caps fired 20 straight shots toward the Toronto cage over a span of 16:18, getting 13 of those on net and three of them behind Reimer.
The ice in the Capitals’ zone was nearly pristine; the Leafs went 15:39 without getting a shot on goal, but their second one found its mark.
After the puck pinballed around briefly between both teams in the high slot, Leafs forward Troy Bodie settled it and sniped a shot past Caps goaltender Jaroslav Halak, high on the blocker side.
The Caps outshot the Leafs 14-2 in the first, and they out-attempted Toronto by a total of 22-6. But Bodie’s goal gave the Leafs a better lot in life than they deserved after 20, and after a likely lashing from Carlyle at the first intermission, the Leafs were clearly engaged from the opening puck drop of the middle period.
The Leafs began to occupy the attack zone with much more frequency, and there was soon a palpable feeling that the next goal in the game would be a big one. That goal went to Toronto.
Toronto moved the puck around the Washington end and out to Phaneuf at the left point. The veteran defenseman launched a soft wrist shot that meandered its way cleanly through a tangle of traffic in front to find purchase in the net behind Halak to make it a 3-2 game at the 8:05 mark of the second period.
Soon afterwards, the Caps entered a treacherous stage of the game. When Jack Hillen went off for tripping just 27 seconds after Phaneuf’s goal, the Maple Leafs had a glorious chance to seize momentum and even the game. When the Caps took two more penalties in short succession after that, they put their slim lead in a precarious state against the league’s third-best power play.
But Washington’s beleaguered penalty killing outfit got the job done, successfully navigating its way through a stretch in which it was on the ice for six minutes in a stretch of just 7:02 around the midpoint of the game.
The Caps got through the second period with that one-goal lead intact, and they managed to shut the door on Toronto in the third. The Leafs had 29 shots on goal in the game, but only seven of those came in the final frame.
“I thought we just got back to what we were doing in the first,” says Caps coach Adam Oates of his team’s performance in the third. “We got through the kills [in the second] and got some momentum. We had more of five guys moving up the ice and getting pressure, on them, making it difficult on [the Leafs] coming up the ice. I think they only had one chance in the third off the rush. We did a better job of putting the puck in the right places, getting it behind their goalie and making them work hard.”
Late in the contest, Chimera took off on a semi-breakaway, drawing a slashing penalty on Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner in the process. That put Toronto down a man for two of the game’s final three minutes, and the Caps did a fine job of hemming Toronto in its own end and keeping the Leafs from getting an extra attacker on the ice until less than a minute remained in the game.
With Chimera, Beagle and Eric Fehr on the ice – and with Backstrom and Brouwer over the boards afterwards – along with Alzner and John Carlson, there were no late-game misadventures reminiscent of two weeks ago when the Caps lost a late lead and the game in a critical contest against the Flyers.
Caps captain Alex Ovechkin had been on the ice for more than a minute when the Flyers scored the tying goal in that March 2 loss; it’s worth noting that he was not deployed at all after the 17:56 mark of the third period of Sunday’s win over Toronto.
The Caps nailed down the win and they got an empty-net insurance marker in the final seconds when Brouwer cleared the Caps’ zone and the puck rolled slowly toward the Leafs’ net. Backstrom got out in front of two Toronto defenders to make sure they wouldn’t get there first and sweep the puck to safety.
Although he could have easily slammed it home himself, Backstrom merely protected the puck, enabling it to cross the line on its own. The typically selfless Backstrom gesture resulted in Brouwer’s 20th goal of the season.
20/20 – Both Ward and Brouwer reached the 20-gaol plateau for the season in Sunday’s game. They join Ovechkin to give Washington three players with 20 or more goals. Ovechkin leads the NHL with 45 on the season.
For Ward, this is the first 20-goal season of the veteran winger’s career. He celebrated his 33rd birthday last December 2, and he becomes the eighth-oldest player in NHL history to record the first 20-goal season of his career. Of the seven players ahead of Ward on that list, only one – Dallas Drake of the St. Louis Blues in 2002 – has done so since 1978.
“We’re really happy for the guy,” says Brouwer of Ward. “We’re really happy he gets rewarded for what he does. A lot of the time he and Chimmer and Fehrsie get overshadowed because of the names that we have our team. Night in and night out, I think they are our most consistent line, and that’s why they stick together. They are unsung for us.”
Brouwer has netted 20 goals in a season once previously; he scored 22 for the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in 2009-10. Since then, Brouwer has scored 17, then 18, then 19 and now 20 goals in the four succeeding seasons.
Ward also reached 20 assists for the season during Sunday’s game against the Leafs as well. He has recorded 40 points for the first time in his NHL career and is now one helper shy of matching his single-season career best of 21, established in 2009-10 when he was a member of the Nashville Predators.
Gang Green – The Caps’ trio of Chimera, Fehr and Ward is generally thought of as the team’s third line, but it’s the only trio on the team that can currently boast of all its members having double-digit goal totals.
Known as “The Green Line” because they sport bright green jerseys at the Capitals’ practice sessions, the Caps’ third line has been sustaining Washington through some extremely lean offensive times in five-on-five play.
“We want to contribute five-on-five,” says Ward. “First we want to do that. Obviously, special teams is huge nowadays, but you’re not going to be on the power play all the time or penalty kill. You’ve got to establish a good five-on-five game. Get the pucks in deep.”
Top-liners Brooks Laich, Backstrom and Ovechkin scored even-strength markers against the Panthers in Florida on Feb. 27, but Washington has had only 13 five-on-five goals in nine games since.
Of those 13 five-on-five goals Washington has scored in its last nine, one or more (and usually all three) members of “Gang Green” has been on the ice for 10 of them.
“I’ve counted on Wardo and Chimmer all year long,” says Oates. “They play together [on the] penalty kill, power play. Big bodies that we count on for a lot of minutes to get territory for us. It’s good to see them get rewarded because you don’t get a lot of accolades based on that. You know, doing grunt work.”
Powering Up – The Caps are now 13-3-1 this season when scoring two or more power-play goals in a game.
Washington has had four games with more than one power play goal in the 10 contests it had played since the conclusion of the Olympic break. The Caps have scored 12 goals with the extra man in 32 opportunities during that span for a lusty 37.5% success rate.
Personal Best – Halak recorded his 27th win of the season on Sunday, matching his single-season career best. He posted a 27-21-7 record in 2010-11, his first season as a member of the St. Louis Blues.
With Sunday’s win, Halak raised his record to 27-11-4 on the season. He is 3-2 in five starts as a member of the Capitals. Those five starts have come in Washington’s last five games.
On The Board – Washington’s other key trade deadline acquisition – in addition to Halak – was Penner, and he picked up his first point since the swap with a nifty primary helper on Ward’s 20th tally of the season.
Helping Hands – Alzner had two assists in the game for his first multiple-point game since he had three assists in a 7-6 Washington win over the Ducks in Anaheim on Feb. 16, 2011.
With 16 points (two goals, 14 assists) on the season, Alzner is a point shy of single-season career best of 17 in 2011-12.
Kuznetsov now has four assists in his last two games.
Down On The Farm – The AHL Hershey Bears came out on the short end of a 3-2 decision against the Norfolk Admirals on Sunday afternoon at Giant Center.
The Bears fell down 2-0 in the first 20 minutes of the game and were forced to play catch-up the rest of the way. Michael Latta scored his 11th goal of the season with help from captain Dane Byers and David Kolomatis at 9:41 of the second period, but Norfolk was able to restore its two-goal cushion less than seven minutes later.
Bears blueliner Tyson Strachan struck for a shorthanded tally with 3:35 left in the third period, but that was as close as the Bears would get.
Hershey goaltender Philipp Grubauer made 33 saves in a losing effort. The 31-23-4-4 Bears are in ninth place in the AHL’s Eastern Conference standings, four points behind the eighth-place Admirals.
Down a level, the ECHL Reading Royals suffered a 3-2 overtime loss at the hands of the Wheeling Nailers at Santander Arena in Reading on Sunday.
Yannick Tifu and Domenic Monardo scored to account for the Royals’ offense in the game, and Riley Gill made 23 saves in a losing effort in the Reading crease.
The Royals are now 38-20-2-1 on the season and they hold a nine-point bulge over second place Wheeling in the ECHL’s Atlantic Division standings. The defending Kelly Cup champion Royals are tied with Kalamazoo and South Carolina for the best record in the three-division Eastern Conference.
By The Numbers – Green paced the Capitals with 25:31 in ice time … Green and Brouwer led the way with five shots on goal each, and both players also topped Washington with eight shot attempts … Brouwer and Ward led the Caps with four hits each in the game … Defenseman John Carlson blocked five shots in the game, accounting for one-third of Washington’s total of 15 for the game … Jay Beagle won 10 of his 16 draws (63%) in the contest … Phil Kessel’s four shots on net were the most among the Maple Leafs … McClement won 11 of 16 face-offs (69%) to lead the Leafs.