Losing streaks are the scourge of playoff hopes. An NHL team can lose three or four games in a row in November without much panic and with little anxiety. But drop even a couple of games in a row once mid-April rolls around, and a team’s entire postseason outlook can take on a different paintjob.
Such is life now for the Washington Capitals, whose 1-0 series lead of four nights ago is now a distant memory after two straight overtime losses to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Tyler Bozak’s power-play goal at 1:37 of overtime – seven seconds before Caps center Lars Eller was to be sprung from the penalty box – lifted the Leafs to a 4-3 win on Monday night at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. Washington’s second straight loss gives the Leafs a 2-1 series lead.
For the Capitals, Monday’s setback stings. Washington owned a 3-1 lead with five minutes left in the second period, and that was even after it squandered a five-on-three power play for a full two minutes and another power play a minute after that one expired. The Caps are generally effective at locking down leads late in games, but on this night, they left the door open and the Leafs walked right in.
“You get tested,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “That’s what life’s about. It’s not going to be easy.
“I’m from out in Manitoba and [Leafs coach Mike Babcock] is from Saskatchewan. Those winters are hard, and not everything comes easy. So it’s not coming easy right now, but at the same time, we’re right there. We’ve had three overtime games. It’s a heck of a series. You find out a lot about your guys, you really do.”
Still owning that 3-1 lead as the clock ticked below five minutes remaining in the second, Washington was burned for a pair of forechecking goals in the final 4:47 of the middle stanza, and it never managed to recover.
Nazem Kadri’s deflection of a right point shot made it 3-2 with 4:47 left in the second, but the real dagger was William Nylander’s goal in the waning seconds of the period. Washington’s coverage in front was soft, and Nylander had enough time and space for two excellent scoring chances from prime real estate in the slot. Caps goalie Braden Holtby made a great stop on the first, but Nylander was first to the rebound and he easily buried it to knot the score at 3-3 at 19:20 of the second.
In the third, the Caps were inexplicably ineffective. Kevin Shattenkirk was sent off for delay of game at 3:34, giving the Leafs their first power play of the night. A Jay Beagle interference call some six minutes later gave Toronto yet another chance to take its first lead of the night. The Caps’ penalty killers came through on both occasions, but Washington had virtually nothing going on offensively over the final 20 minutes of regulation, even when the sides were even.
The Capitals’ first shot on goal of the third period came at the 13:26 mark, and they managed just two more after that. None of the three came from inside of 40 feet, and one came from neutral ice. Evgeny Kuznetsov hit the goal post late in the third on probably the Caps’ lone scoring chance of the period.
With the lead in the series at stake and needing a victory in Toronto to regain home ice advantage, the Leafs out-attempted the Capitals by a whopping 28-9 count in the final frame. The Caps went 14 minutes and 20 seconds without a shot on goal from late in the second to late in the third, losing their slim one-goal lead in the process.
A high-sticking call on Eller with 15.7 seconds left in regulation gave the Leafs a carryover power play, and it was the Leafs – who have a fraction of the playoff experience of the Capitals – who displayed the killer instinct at that point, winning the game before the Caps could kill off the penalty. Bozak tipped Kadri’s shot behind Holtby to end it.
“The first half was pretty good in some areas,” says Holtby. “[The Leafs] got kind of a lucky bounce on the second goal, and we got kind of crossed up on the third. It seems like we didn’t push through as well as we can. The rest of the game, we didn’t push enough and kind of sat back.
“That’s a frustrating one. We know we have a lot better than that. We’ve got to look at the first half and see what we did well, and play the full 60.”
Twenty-six and a half mediocre minutes at the end of the game also undid a strong start from the Capitals. Washington scored on each of its first two shots on goal of the game to open up a 2-0 lead before the game was five minutes old.
With the two teams skating with four players each, Caps center Nicklas Backstrom came through neutral ice and lofted the puck ahead into Toronto ice along the right wing wall. Nate Schmidt used his wheels to reach the puck along the half wall, and he carried down to the goal line. From there, Schmidt slid a perfect backhand feed to the front for a trailing Backstrom, who parked the puck behind Toronto netminder Frederik Andersen at 2:43 of the first.
Just over two minutes later, Washington doubled its lead with a forechecking goal. Backstrom and Ovechkin combined to shake the puck loose from Toronto blueliner Jake Gardiner behind the Leafs’ net. Kadri came down to help out, and he pushed the puck along toward the right half wall where Leo Komarov was stationed. But John Carlson read the play and made a smart pinch, getting body position on Komarov and winning the puck. Carlson tapped it to T.J. Oshie, who went to Backstrom up higher in the zone. Backstrom bumped it to Ovechkin, and the captain’s one-timer blast from the top of the left circle beat Andersen to put the Caps up 2-0 at the 4:49 mark.
The Leafs cut into that lead late in the first when Auston Matthews carried into Washington ice and got a fortunate bounce to score his first career playoff goal. Matthews tried to shoot, but Carlson blocked the shot and then the puck bounced off Schmidt’s head and fell at Matthews’ feet. Holtby stopped the next shot from in tight, but Matthews was able to tuck the rebound in at 14:08 to make it a 2-1 game.
Washington added to its lead early in the second when Kuznetsov scored off the rush, firing a shot past Andersen from a difficult angle down low on the left side at 5:39. Kuznetsov collected a rebound of a Marcus Johansson shot after Anderson had made the initial stop.
Up two goals as the midway point of the middle period approached, the Caps were unable to muster the killer instinct needed take control of the game and potentially, the series. The Leafs’ fourth line got too aggressive after a whistle when Toronto defenseman Matt Hunwick was already headed to the box for hooking. The result was a full two-minute, two-man advantage for a Caps power play that had clicked on three of eight chances in the first two games of the series.
The Capitals had the offensive-zone time, they had the looks at the net and they were adept at puck retrieval when they needed to be. What they didn’t have was the radar. Four strong looks resulted in shots that missed the net altogether, including the best chance of all when Backstrom brilliantly set up Shattenkirk for a long look at a yawning cage from the left circle. But Shattenkirk pushed his shot over the net.
The Caps only managed to get two of seven shot attempts on net during those two minutes, and both of those came from fairly long range and were easily set aside.
Although the Caps continued to have some strong shifts in the Toronto zone throughout the remainder of the period, they weren’t able to pad their lead. Meanwhile, the Leafs continued to be dangerous whenever they made the odd foray into the Washington end of the ice.
When it mattered most, when the fate of the game and the series were hanging in the balance, the Leafs stepped up while the Caps stepped back. Washington is now in a position where it needs to win three of the next four games to move on to the next round.
The Caps will need to turn in a more consistent performance than they have in the first three games to pull that off.
“I don’t think there is any doubt,” says Trotz. “It’s the first team to four [wins], so we’ve got some room here. With this group that we have right now, I think we’re in a better place to handle that. We want to break some new ground, just like the Leafs are trying to do. They’re trying to break through; we’ve got to break through. Our resolve is being tested.”