The Capitals scored five goals in Wednesday’s Game 4 in Toronto, and they needed every one of them. Braden Holtby made 30 saves in the game, and the Caps needed every one of those, too. The goals and the saves added up to what the Capitals needed more than anything, a second win in this best-of-seven series.
For the second straight game, the Caps roared out to an early lead only to see the Maple Leafs surge back later in the contest. This time though, the Capitals bent but did not break. They get out of Toronto with a hard-earned 5-4 victory over the Leafs in Game 4, a win that assures their return here for a Game 6 on Sunday.
The series is now square at two games apiece, shrunk to a best-of-three with Washington wresting home ice advantage back from the Leafs by virtue of Wednesday’s win.
An early 4-1 lead evaporated slowly over the course of the game as the Caps battled the Leafs, the calls and the bounces. Washington's path was fraught with peril and adversity, but the Caps still managed to do something neither team had been able to do in this series until Wednesday's Game 4 – take the lead and hold it for the remainder of the night.
“We had everyone going,” says Caps right wing T.J. Oshie, who scored twice, tallying Washington’s first and last goals of the game. “We were putting pucks to the right areas, we were shooting a little bit more and getting guys to the net. I think that gave us some more chances. You’ve got to tip your hat because [the Leafs] kept coming at the end there, but we were able to hold them off.”
Washington jumped out to an early 1-0 advantage, getting back to the basics to get on the board first. Nicklas Backstrom won a left dot draw in the offensive zone, pulling the puck back to Nate Schmidt at the left point. Schmidt put the puck off the back wall, Backstrom outmuscled Tyler Bozak for it, and bumped it to Oshie for an easy back-door tap-in at 2:58.
A minute later, the Caps went on the power play when Bozak hi-sticked Lars Eller at the top of the paint in the Leafs’ zone. After winning a draw in the Toronto end, Backstrom once again used his strength to create a goal. He prevented Leo Komarov and then Morgan Rielly from clearing the puck, enabling Kevin Shattenkirk to keep the puck in for Washington at the right point. Quickly spotting Alex Ovechkin all alone on the weak side in his left circle office, Shattenkirk put it on a tee for the Caps’ captain, who pounded a one-timer past Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen to extend the Caps’ lead to 2-0 at 4:34.
It would be Washington’s only power play chance of the game.
That two-goal lead proved to be short-lived for the Caps. Just 42 seconds later, Zach Hyman deflected a Jake Gardiner center point shot past Washington netminder Braden Holtby, halving the Caps’ lead to 2-1 at the 5:16 mark.
Several minutes later, the game took a turn that had a significant impact on the scoreboard. A Toronto shot trickled through Holtby’s pads and teetered on the goal line until a diving Tom Wilson dove headfirst through the crease to prevent it from wobbling into the net.
“Those plays kind of go in slow mo,” recounts Wilson. “I could see it sitting on [Holtby’s] pants, and I knew because of the shape of the puck it was going to fall down. It was falling behind him and I had time to jump in and make the save there.”
Eller then carried into Toronto ice, down the right side and around back of the Leafs net. From just above the goal line on the opposite side, he suddenly turned and fired. Wilson, parked near the paint along with Rielly, deflected it through Andersen’s legs for a 3-1 Washington lead at 13:41 of the first, and an instant two-goal swing in the game.
“Holts has been so stellar for us,” says Wilson. “I know it’s going to probably hit him. I just had an eye on it that no one else did, and I tried to make sure it stayed out of the net. Luckily, it did and I go down and score. It felt good.”
Just over two minutes later, Wilson struck again on a two-on-one with Andre Burakovsky, taking a fine feed from his linemate and snapping a shot over a sprawling Andersen to give Washington the first three-goal lead of the series, 4-1 at 16:04.
The Caps owned a 30-17 advantage in first-period shot attempts, they led 15-6 in shots on net, and they won 13 of the 21 draws (62 percent) in the frame.
The Caps kept their foot on the gas through the middle period. They were effective at exiting their zone cleanly and efficiently and they kept getting pucks and bodies to the net in the Toronto end of the ice. But a trio of Washington penalties in the middle period opened the door for the Leafs.
Backstrom went off for holding the stick early in the second, and the Leafs’ power play took advantage of the opportunity, shrinking the Caps’ lead to 4-2 on a James van Riemsdyk goal from the right dot at 5:39.
With 6.4 seconds left in the second, Eller was sent away for delay of game (face-off violation). To make matters instantly worse, Brooks Orpik was boxed for slashing Toronto’s Mitch Marner immediately after the ensuing draw. The upshot of all that was a two-man advantage of 117 seconds in duration for Toronto, with 114 of those seconds to be played on a clean sheet of ice at the start of the third, and with an entire intermission for both sides to mull over the implications on the game and the series.
Toronto got five shots on net – four of them from 21 feet away or closer – and it pulled the trigger a total of eight times during the life of that two-man advantage, but Holtby stood tall and stopped them all, enabling the Caps to get out of the weeds with their two-goal lead still intact.
At the 8:49 mark of the third, a Schmidt shot from the left point got behind Andersen, but it was instantly and vehemently waved off for goaltender interference. The Caps opted to use their coach’s video challenge, but the call on the ice was upheld, and Washington’s lead stayed at just two goals.
With eight minutes left in the third, the Leafs narrowed the Caps’ lead to a single goal.
Justin Williams cleared the puck from the Washington zone from up near the blueline, only to have it bounce off linesman Ryan Gibbons and right back into Toronto’s hands, suddenly putting the Caps back in their own end of the ice in a defensive mode, late in a long shift. Auston Matthews went straight to the net for the Leafs, and when Orpik blocked a Matt Hunwick point shot down low, Matthews was right there to collect and deposit the rebound, making it 4-3.
A mere 59 seconds later, the Caps answered back with a clutch goal, restoring some breathing room with a two-goal cushion once again. At the end of his shift, Burakovsky made a strong play to keep the puck near the Toronto line, enabling Backstrom to jump onto the ice and collect it. As a group of blue sweaters converged on him, Backstrom slid a sublime feed to Oshie, who broke down the right side all alone and snapped a shot through Andersen’s legs, making it a 5-3 game with 7:01 left.
Bozak scored from in tight with 25.8 seconds left, and after a video review to determine whether a Leafs attacker – namely, van Riemsdyk – interfered with Holtby. The powers that be said no, and the goal stood. But there wasn’t enough time left for the Leafs to muster a tying tally, and the Caps got out of town with the win they needed.
“I thought the start was great,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “The first 39 and a half minutes, I would take that most every night. We got a great penalty kill at the start of the [third] period, a two-minute five-on-three I thought was great.
“We got tested in the third period, and you talk about your resolve, you’re playing so well and then you have to kill off a five-on-three. They get a goal that goes off the referee and we get one that is called off, and you’re like, ‘Okay, what else is going to happen?’ But our bench didn’t waver. They just stayed on it. They stayed true to form. They battled through it and they showed a lot of resiliency. Everybody from our goaltender out was resilient today, and the game got close there.
“We fought through it. That was fantastic."