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Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Connor Carrick knocks Washington Capitals forward T.J. Oshie off of the puck in Toronto on Tuesday. (John E. Sokolowski/USA Today Sports)
Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Connor Carrick knocks Washington Capitals forward T.J. Oshie off of the puck in Toronto on Tuesday. (John E. Sokolowski/USA Today Sports)

Tired Maple Leafs wilt under Capitals’ attack, will have to wait to clinch Add to ...

The Toronto Maple Leafs had to run out of energy sooner or later.

They gave it a decent effort Tuesday night but just didn’t have enough gas left in the tank to do anything with the NHL’s best team. The 4-1 loss to the Washington Capitals prevented the Leafs from clinching a playoff spot. It also cost them a place in the top three spots of the Atlantic Division, as the Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators both won, relegating the Leafs to the second Eastern Conference wild-card spot for now.

Clinching may have to wait until Thursday night when the Tampa Bay Lightning, five points behind the Leafs in the wild-card race, come calling. Then again, if the New York Islanders win on Wednesday, they are still in the fight, which would complicate matters.

“We didn’t find out how good they were because we didn’t push them at all,” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said. “So it was a one-sided game. They were better than us from start to finish.

“I mean, we had a [push] at the start of the second [period] but other than that they were bigger, stronger, faster, quicker, more organized, better.”

After running amok for a few weeks, the Maple Leafs were given a lesson by the Capitals as to what an elite team plays like. They went to a punishing fore-check right away and never let up. By the end of the second period, the first-place-overall team in the NHL had a 2-0 lead on the Leafs and were never seriously threatened by their younger and vastly less-experienced opponents.

“We knew those guys would come hard,” said Leafs goaltender Curtis McElhinney, who gave No. 1 goalie Frederik Andersen the night off and faced 38 shots from the Caps. “They played a pretty solid game all-round. They took advantage of our mistakes.”

However, this was not unexpected. Not much was trending the Leafs’ way going into the game at the Air Canada Centre. The Leafs were coming off a three-game road trip in which they played remarkably well, winning all three to run their winning streak to four and their record in their last 10 games to 8-1-1. One of the most common losses in the NHL is to a team playing its first game at home after a multi-game road trip.

In addition, though, the Leafs were playing the second of road-and-home, back-to-back games. While the Leafs were beating the Sabres in Buffalo 4-2 on Monday night, the Caps were lounging in their hotel rooms in Toronto, resting up for Tuesday’s game. And the Caps were riding their own 8-1-1 streak in their last 10 games, which took them to first place overall in the NHL with 112 points.

Not that Capitals head coach Barry Trotz had anything disparaging to say about the rising young Leafs. He said much the same about them that other coaches around the league are saying, that Babock has whipped them into shape.

“They’re very motivated,” Trotz said before the game. “They have a lot of structure to their game. They tightened up their defensive game, they’re very dangerous [and] they have a generational player in Auston Matthews. They’re playing with structure, a lot of intensity, a lot of focus and a lot of commitment.

“They are in a position to be in the playoffs. There’s not a lot of holes in their game. They’ve got it dialed in right now. Their speed and skill are acute right now, they’re 8-1-1 in their last 10. That’s a pretty good record.”

Okay, someone said to Trotz, your team is also 8-1-1 in its last 10 games. To which the coach replied it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

“Yeah, well, we’re not as tight in our game right now,” Trotz said. “We’ve got some work to do on it.  We’ve had a couple of sloppy, junk wins. We’re a veteran team. We can dial it in. I thought we were dialed-in about 15 games ago. For about eight or 10 games we were pretty good and then we slipped.”

True to Trotz’s words, the Capitals came out running smoothly at the Air Canada Centre. They did not allow the speedy young Leafs much time or space and through the first 14 minutes all the Leafs could manage were three shots on goal.

Especially belligerent was Caps superstar Alexander Ovechkin. He hit anyone in a blue sweater he encountered. Leafs centre Nazem Kadri took a good hit from Ovechkin, as did rookie Connor Brown, who retreated gingerly to the Leafs bench after being drilled into the boards.

Ovechkin was probably still steaming over NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s announcement the league would not participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics. Ovechkin has long said he will play no matter what the NHL does and he’s been saying it again, although international rules and international sports associations will no doubt prevent any one-man revolts.

The Capitals opened the scoring at 14:34 of the first period when Andre Burakovsky fed centre Lars Eller for a one-timer that seemed to bounce off Leafs centre Auston Matthews before getting by McElhinney.

By the end of the first period, the Caps outshot the Leafs 13-3 and had a 22-14 advantage in shot attempts. While the Leafs did push back in the second period, the Capitals only bent for a while and then sprang back in charge of the game.

By the midway mark of the period, the Leafs lost centre Brian Boyle. He sustained an undisclosed injury and the Leafs said he would not return to the game. Babcock declined to give any details on Boyle’s injury, saying only that he would be reassessed by the Leafs’ doctors on Wednesday. But the Leafs have the day off, so no further word on Boyle is likely until Thursday.

The Capitals took a 2-0 lead at the halfway mark of the second period on a power-play goal by Kevin Shattenkirk. The defenceman ripped a quick one-timer past McElhinney on a beautiful feed from centre Nicklas Backstrom for his 12th goal of the season. Nate Schmidt effectively finished off the Leafs with a goal at 8:11 of the third period and Tom Wilson added another at 16:46.

Mitch Marner broke Washington goaltender Philipp Grubauer’s shutout bid at 18:52 of the third with his 19th goal of the season on a power play.

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