The Toronto Maple Leafs can argue they deserved better against the Washington Capitals, but Braden Holtby and Alexander Ovechkin can argue they did not.
Holtby, 21, is the rookie goaltender who slammed the door on the Leafs Saturday night for a 4-1 win by the Capitals at the Air Canada Centre. He is filling in for the injured Michal Neuvirth and was given a second start since his latest recall from the farm team because the Caps' other goaltender, Semyon Varlamov, just came back from an injury and was not ready for a start.
Ovechkin, of course, needs no introduction, although he has not been quite the offensive force so far this season that he usually is. That wasn't the case against the Leafs, though, as the Capitals superstar scored three goals and generally looked like a force of nature, blowing by Leaf defenders and crashing their net.
In 22 career games against the Maple Leafs, Ovechkin has 22 goals. He said it is the Air Canada Centre as much as the Leafs that gets his competitive juices flowing.
"No, it's just a good atmosphere, a great building to play hockey in," he said.
The Leafs could argue they held the upper hand until the third period when Matt Hendricks stripped defenceman Luke Schenn of the puck at the Toronto blue line and scored on a breakaway to give the Caps a 3-1 lead.
That upper hand, though, was swatted away by Holtby, who made 35 saves, several of them spectacular. He was especially cool in the last 2 minutes 30 seconds of the third period when the Leafs pulled goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere for an extra skater. The Leafs had trouble getting shots through the Caps on the youngster but when they did Holtby refused to fold.
"We had a great start and played hard," said Leaf defenceman and captain Dion Phaneuf, who was a physical force for a second consecutive game. "They got that second goal, it went in off my hand, we responded to that.
"I thought we played hard all night. Their goalie played very well."
Their goalie said one reason he played well this time around is that he learned a few things from his first tour this season when he had a win and two losses in three starts.
"I didn't have much success the first time up," Holtby said. "I looked at it as a learning experience."
Holtby left the 19,554 fans buzzing and the Leafs shaking their heads on two occasions in particular. First, after Mikhail Grabovski charged out of the penalty box and joined with Tyler Bozak on a two-on-one rush, Holtby coolly stood his ground as the Leaf duo passed the puck back and forth and then flicked out a pad for a tremendous save on Bozak. Bozak was also the victim in the second period when he was handed the puck by Capitals defenceman Mike Green for a breakaway. Again, Holtby refused to commit himself on a deke and made the save.
After Ovechkin scored his second goal early in the third period to give the Caps a 2-0 lead, Tim Brent finally put a puck behind Holtby to give the Leafs a lift. But they deflated just a few seconds later when Schenn coughed up the puck to Hendricks.
The Leafs leave Sunday for a two-game road trip before the NHL all-star break. They play the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday and the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday.