Considering the censure Vesa Toskala endured from the fans and the media this season, his Toronto Maple Leafs teammates figured most of the credit for their biggest win of the season should go his way.
The Leafs goaltender was superb, putting in his best performance since he joined the team for the 2007-08 season, out-duelling both Alexander Ovechkin and Washington Capitals goaltender Semyon Varlamov on Saturday night for a 2-1 shootout win. But the Leafs defencemen can take a bow, too, as they kept Ovechkin bottled up for most of the night (he did score the Caps' only goal) in a tremendous defensive effort.
That was followed by a rare show of skill in the shootout, as Phil Kessel and Niklas Hagman scored for the Leafs while Toskala blanked the Caps, including Ovechkin, who missed the net on his attempt.
"Outstanding, outstanding," Leafs defenceman Ian White said of Toskala, who was making his first home start since Oct. 10 thanks to an injury and his mediocre play. "I can't say enough about him. He's battled a lot of adversity but he's a character guy and a great goaltender."
Some Leafs may even argue their rally caps should get a mention. Most of them put their helmets on backward during the shootout for an extra dose of good luck.
"It's nice that they're trying to change their luck," Leafs head coach Ron Wilson allowed, before admonishing the media not to think it seriously changed the team's luck.
Toskala was the good luck charm, hanging tough as the Leafs outshot the Capitals 39-32 but could not, as usual locate their scoring touch until Hagman scored late in the second period to tie the score 1-1. But Toskala, who had a share in much of the Leafs' sorry 16-27 lifetime record in shootouts passed the test.
"It's nice to win," Toskala, said, maintaining his usual laidback demeanor in his first win since Feb. 26. "It's been a while.
"We've been playing pretty good lately but [this time]we had a bit of luck on our side, too. It's a fine line between winning and losing. We deserve it."
The win broke a five-game winless streak for the Leafs. The Capitals, who may have been tired after losing 3-2 to the Montreal Canadiens on Friday night, have now won only one of their last four NHL games.
Leafs head coach Ron Wilson elected to go with the only ace in his deck right off the bat in the shootout. Phil Kessel beat Varlamov with a wrist shot and then after Toskala stopped Eric Fehr and Ovechkin missed the net, Hagman gave the Leafs the shootout win with a goal.
"I didn't tell the players this," Wilson said afterwards, "but their goalie had only been scored on once in 14 attempts in the shootout. And Vesa [Toskala] we all know his struggles in the shootout. He was one save better than .500."
The Leafs walked a tightrope for the first 40 minutes, as they played well defensively but could not reap any benefits because of their terminal inability to score. This is not to say the forwards did not work hard. Indeed, they pounded away at Varlamov but to little effect thanks to their hands of stone.
Midway through the period when the Leafs took a couple of penalties, Toskala showed he was ready to play one of his best games since 2007-08, his first season in Toronto. He stopped a tricky deflection in front of his net, then reached across the crease while he was lying on the ice to get his arm on a shot from Ovechkin that was headed toward the open net.
Toskala was rewarded with an warm ovation from the fans, a far cry from the mock cheer they sent up seconds into the game when he stopped a Capitals' dump-in.
"That settled the crowd down," Wilson said of the save. "It made them appreciate what he can do for us."
The Leafs swarmed Varlamov on several occasions during the second period but could not find any of the openings. It took a couple of bounces going their way, something the Leaf forwards have long complained that never happens, for them to tie the game.
Jason Blake fired a shot that hit a Capitals defenceman in front of the net. The puck caromed sideways, right to Niklas Hagman on the left side of the net. The puck hit Hagman and changed direction again, sailing past Varlamov and into the net at 16:49 to tie the score 1-1.
The Leafs kept up the heat in the third period, coming hard enough for Caps coach Bruce Boudreau to call a timeout with about six minutes left to exhort his players. They were looking a little weary, having played at home on Friday night.
The Caps perked up a little after that and gave the Leafs a scare with 2;27 left when Eric Fehr took a 40-foot wrist shot and hit the post. The Leafs closed with a couple of scoring chances of their own but had to settle for the overtime session.