The conventional wisdom says the game an NHL team is most likely to lose is the first one at home following a long road trip.
That is exactly the way it played out Thursday night, with the Washington Capitals taking a 3-2 decision after spending the previous day at their Toronto hotel while the Leafs made their way home. But the Leafs came out anything like a road-weary team, taking the play to the Capitals for the first half of the game and again as the third period wound down.
However, Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby held off the Leafs long enough for his teammates to gather themselves over the second period. John Tavares scored for the Leafs with 33 seconds left and goaltender Frederik Andersen was pulled for an extra skater but they could not get any closer. Holtby finished the game with 40 saves.
Now the Leafs find themselves winless in their last three games, with only one point from an overtime loss to the St. Louis Blues that ended their 11-day, six-game road trip. Next up are the Montreal Canadiens, who pay a visit on Saturday.
“We had lots of great looks, lots of good opportunities, no question about it,” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said. “We probably skated better than I thought after coming off the trip.
“But the bottom line is you’ve got to get points and we’ve suddenly got one in three games and so we’ve got to get ourselves energized tomorrow and get back at it and find a way to win hockey games.”
Alexander Ovechkin, with his 43rd goal and 70th point of the season, scored for the Capitals along with Brett Connolly and Tom Wilson. It was also Ovechkin’s 650th NHL goal, which made him the 14th player to hit the milestone. He is also 14th in career scoring, six goals behind Leafs president Brendan Shanahan.
Wilson, who was a physical force all night, broke the Leafs’ back with a shorthanded goal at 6:46 of the third period. This came just over two minutes after Andreas Johnsson finally broke Holtby’s shutout bid to cut the Washington lead to 2-1.
The Maple Leafs deserved a better fate after two periods, having buzzed Holtby’s net repeatedly, but good teams find ways to score even when they are under siege at times. The Capitals may not be leading the Metropolitan Division these days but as the defending Stanley Cup champions they are still a good team and managed to turn a couple opportunities into goals.
“They’ve got a lot of smart hockey players,” Tavares said of the Capitals. “They know how to play the game and know how to play over the course of a season.
“When you play against a team like that you’ve got to understand it’s a long grind for 60 minutes. You’ve got to find a way to work on those challenges.”
The first Washington chance came early in the second period when Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly took the first penalty of the game. Ovechkin scored his milestone goal in classic fashion, blasting his famed one-timer from the top of the left circle over Andersen’s glove. While the shot definitely was a rocket, it was also one Andersen could have stopped considering the distance it travelled.
“[Ovechkin’s] play, his numbers speak for themselves,” Tavares said. “You look where he scored from. It was not that close to the net.
“His ability to get pucks off with very little room and being as accurate as he is, there’s no bigger threat over the last 10, 20 years on the power play. Any time he’s got the puck in the offensive zone you know it’s got a chance.”
The second Washington opportunity was created by Wilson, once again playing a big game in his Toronto hometown. He met Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner at the end boards in a chase for the puck and sent Gardiner flying. This kept the puck under the Caps’ control and Lars Eller found Connolly in front of the net for his 15th goal of the season at 12:07.
The goal came shortly after the Leafs’ first power play of the game, a two-minute flurry that encapsulated their entire game to that point. The first power-play unit, coming off a good run on the Leafs’ road trip, blasted away at Holtby but could not beat him.
This was not for a lack of trying. The Leafs came out flying at the opening faceoff and with the Capitals striking back occasionally with a counter-attack the first period was a lot of fun to watch. By the end of it, the Leafs held a 12-8 edge in shots and a 38-23 advantage in shot attempts with the score 0-0. Things were a little more even in the second, as the Caps outshot the Leafs 13-9 to square the shots on goal at 21 each.
William Nylander was the most noticeable of the Leafs, as the move to centre on the third line to replace Nazem Kadri clearly agreed with him. His speed and stickhandling were such that he seemed to be part of a great scoring chance every time he was on the ice.
Johnsson had eight shots on goal in the first period alone playing on Nylander’s left wing, matching the entire Capitals team. But the pair could not turn that into goals and the Capitals grew stronger over the second period.
In an effort to produce something against Holtby, Babcock moved Johnsson up to left wing on Auston Matthews’s line, replacing Patrick Marleau. This paid off with Johnsson’s goal early in the third period.
There was no word on how long Kadri will be out of the lineup. He suffered a concussion in the final game of the Leafs’ 11-day, six-game trip. All Babcock would say when asked for an update on his status was, “No. He’s not playing.”