Just when the Toronto Maple Leafs thought they had smothered Alexander Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals star stunned them. But they managed to recover in time to win by shootout because goaltender James Reimer stepped up to slam the door on Ovechkin and a couple of other Capitals.
With four minutes, 10 seconds left in the third period, the Leafs were nursing a 1-0 lead at the Air Canada Centre. At that point, Ovechkin had not been a threat thanks to a determined defensive effort by the Leafs, and it seemed the game was winding down to another of those wins when the Leafs were badly outshot.
But Ovechkin shocked the Leafs and their 19,473 fans when the puck came to him near the top of the left faceoff circle. He caught the Leafs and Reimer flatfooted when he quickly snapped a 30-foot shot into the net to tie the score and force overtime. It was his 20 goal in 22 games, putting the possibility of 50 in 50 games in sight.
"You want to be on the top of your crease and make him beat you with a great shot and I thought I was in good position," Reimer said of Ovechkin's shot. "I think the puck took a funny bounce when it landed on his stick. He ripped it low blocker and off the post. Good shot from him."
Once overtime passed without a goal, the teams had to go four shooters deep into the shootout, with Joffrey Lupul scoring the decisive goal for a 2-1 win. Reimer stopped Ovechkin on his shootout chance, then Nicklas Backstrom and finally Troy Brouwer to rescue the win for the Leafs.
It was the Leafs' third win in their last four games despite their run of injuries and the Capitals are now winless in their last three games. While Leaf defenceman Mark Fraser was able to get back in the lineup from a knee injury, centre Tyler Bozak remained out with his hamstring injury.
"Reims played phenomenal. It was fun to watch," Leafs winger David Clarkson said of Reimer, who faced 50 shots through regulation and overtime. "He made some huge saves to boost the boys."
Reimer practically shrugged off the number of shots, saying he has had tougher games this season with fewer shots. But he admitted to watching the shot clock as the game went along.
"Yeah, you're watching it. I think every goalie does," he said. "It's not like your whole life is focused on it. Honestly, it was more them just throwing pucks at the net from everywhere. I've had some 30-, 35-shot games that were more tiring. The team did a great job keeping shots to the outside."
Any excitement around the return of centre Mikhail Grabovski to Toronto for the first time since his contract was bought out by the Maple Leafs last summer dissipated by the middle of the second period. While he has had a good season offensively with the Capitals, with 19 points in 23 games coming into the game, Grabovski did not make an immediate impact and then narrowly escaped a serious eye injury near the end of the second period.
Grabovski suffered two nasty cuts on the bridge of this nose and under his eye when he was hit by Clarkson's skate as he fell to the ice. Grabovski laid on the ice as the play continued and the referee did not blow the whistle immediately because it did not look like he was seriously injured.
When Grabovski got up quickly after the play was finally stopped, he was booed by the crowd, which, along with several reporters, thought he was trying for a whistle to stop a Leafs rush. But there was a pool of blood on the ice where Grabovski fell and he went to the dressing room immediately.
Grabovski returned to the Caps' bench about four minutes into the third period after getting stitched up and played the rest of the game. The cuts required a total of 20 stitches.
While Grabovski played a regular shift for the rest of the game, including overtime, Caps head coach Adam Oates decided not to use him in the shootout. The final shot went to Brouwer instead, maybe because the coach figured Reimer would know how to stop Grabovski, given the amount of time they used to practice together.
"Yeah, we practiced a lot after practice and stuff, just me and him. We'd go round-after-round," Reimer said. "Honestly, I thought he would shoot. I don't know why he didn't."
The Leafs took a 1-0 lead into the third period despite an awfully slow start in the second, which saw them outshot 11-0 by the Capitals midway through the frame. But the Leafs managed to survive thanks to Reimer's goaltending and by concentrating their defensive game on Ovechkin, especially during two Washington power plays in the first seven minutes.
By the end of the second period, Ovechkin was held to one shot on goal, although the Capitals held a 28-19 edge in shots through 40 minutes, which grew to 47-23 by the end of regulation time. But the Leafs would find out he was far from finished.
Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle threw a new wrinkle into the Leafs' penalty-killing, which he said helped neutralize Ovechkin, who feasts on one-time shots from the wings.
"We made an adjustment to our penalty kill to give them one-timer shots in the middle and take [Ovechkin] away," Carlyle said. "It didn't look very good but consciously we felt it would be more of an advantage for us to let our goalie see the one-time shot from the players other than Ovechkin.
"You see what he could do with it [on his third-period goal]. He gets one chance with a puck that kind of falls into his lap. He whips it inside the post, where I don't think any goalie would have stopped it."
Shortly after the Leafs killed off the second of those power plays, Capitals forward Eric Fehr was called for interference. This quickly gave the Leafs their first shot on goal of the second period and then their first goal, which came on the second shot of both the power play and the period.
Clarkson, who was a presence around the Capitals net all night, deflected a shot from the point by defenceman Jake Gardiner behind Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby at 10:08. There was a video review because it appeared Clarkson's stick might have been too high on the deflection but the goal stood.
At that point, the Leafs had no even-strength shots on goal in the second period but held a 1-0 lead. Then again, that is not exactly uncommon for this team.
It was a play Clarkson and Gardiner worked on during Saturday's game-day skate and Carlyle was glad to see it. The coach is getting fed up with some of his players' insistence on trying to, in a favourite saying of former Leafs coach Pat Quinn, "pass the puck into the net."
"We've been preaching and we've been pleading with our players, just direct pucks toward the net and drive the middle lane," Carlyle said. "We've been far, far too cute.
"We're not getting that second and third opportunity, that flurry of shots, and the opposition is doing it to us. They take one shot on net and get two or three whacks at it, where we seem to be one and out.
"I'd say we have some thick heads."