Tyler Bozak hopes to be back in the lineup Saturday but either way, the Toronto Maple Leafs need to get their wobbly offence in order quick to handle the Washington Capitals.
Not only will the Capitals come into the Air Canada Centre with the red-hot Alexander Ovechkin, who had 17 goals in 20 games going into Friday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens, they will have a highly motivated Mikhail Grabovski centring their third line, which just happens to be their most consistent scoring unit right now.
“I’m sure he’ll be wanting to put on a good show here,” Bozak said Friday about his old teammate Grabovski, who will face the Leafs for the first time since they dumped him by buying out the last four years of his contract last summer. Bozak has been out since Oct. 25 with a hamstring injury and hopes to get back in the Leafs lineup for the Caps game.
Grabovski did not have a joyful parting with the Leafs. He left with some choice words for Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle, who pushed him into a defensive role last season. His landing with the Capitals has not all been hearts and flowers – Caps head coach Adam Oates took him off the No. 1 power-play unit early in the season and Brooks Laich and now Martin Erat are ahead of him as the second-line centre – but with 18 points by Friday he is already ahead of the 16 points he got all of last season for the Leafs.
“For me, it’s the place where I grew up like a hockey player in the NHL,” Grabovski told The Canadian Press about the prospect of returning to Toronto, which he called his second home. “The motivation is where you like it’s your hometown.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s always the thing with playing old teammates and old buddies,” Leafs defenceman Carl Gunnarsson said of Grabovski. “You want to give that little extra and show the crowd that you’re still doing good.”
Until a 4-0 shutout at the hands of Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier this week, the entire Capitals team was doing well. They are 7-2-1 in their past 10 games and their 69 goals in 22 games are the most in the Eastern Conference.
“Obviously they play a lot of offence, a lot of run-and-gun,” Bozak said. “They’re a fast team. They can put the puck in the net and they’ve got great players up front and on the back end.
“You’ve got to limit turnovers against guys like that as much as we can because they thrive off of it; try and create as much offensive zone time as we can and keep them out of our end as much as possible.”
It wasn’t long ago the Leafs could put themselves in the same category offensively. But then came injuries to Bozak and centre Dave Bolland and yet another centre, Nazem Kadri, drew a three-game suspension. Bozak was to have a medical test Friday night and another Saturday morning before learning if his hamstring is ready for action.
“It was better today again,” Bozak said Friday. “It’s kind of hard to say what will happen.”
Kessel is also dealing with an injury issue, apparently with his right wrist. He has not played more than 16 minutes in his past three games, although he did manage to score two goals in Tuesday’s win over the Islanders. But those were his only goals in his past six games and it seems he’s been pining to be reunited with his good friend and roommate Bozak.
“He’s asking me quite a bit, but he also doesn’t want me to rush it,” Bozak said. “Most of the guys don’t want me to rush it. They want me to come back when I’m ready.”
If the Leafs are going to spend the time in Washington’s zone that Bozak said they need to in order to blunt the Capitals’ attack, then both he and Kessel need to be in the peak of health. And so will the Leafs’ ailing penalty kill, which gave up two goals on four opportunities in Thursday’s loss to the Nashville Predators. The Capitals were tied with the Leafs for the NHL’s third-best power play before Friday’s games with a success rate of 23.6 per cent.
“Staying out of the box is going to be huge,” Gunnarsson said. “We know they got Ovechkin, who’s on fire. He’s scoring goals everywhere, especially on the power play.”
If the Leafs do wind up killing penalties, Bozak said, they have to “try [to block] as many shots as we can and keep [the Caps] to the outside.”
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