It’s Hockey Night in Canada, on which the Washington Capitals will visit the Toronto Maple Leafs with a national television audience tuning in on “Hockey Night in Canada.” It is a big stage on which the Capitals are playing, one on which the Caps have won their last two games. They swept the Maple Leafs in Toronto last season, winning the first contest by a 4-1 margin in January, then winning in a Gimmick by a 3-2 score in April. Here is how the teams fall out so far...
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But it is a new season and a new Maple Leaf team. Or is it? The Leafs come into this game as one of the early season surprises, sitting in a tie for the fourth highest standing points total in the East (22 points, with Buffalo). But the hot start has unraveled some, mostly because of injury and ineffectiveness in goal. James Reimer, who announced his presence in the NHL with authority in the second half of last season (20-10-5, 2.60, .921, three shutouts), started this season 3-0-1 in his first four appearances. But in his fifth appearance, against Montreal, he was left dazed after being hit by Montreal’s Brian Gionta as Gionta was cutting across the crease. Reimer did not return after the next intermission, and he has not appeared in a game since. The diagnosis: “concussion-like symptoms.”
Jonas Gustavsson took Reimer’s place, but he has not been the answer. In nine appearances this season he has allowed three or more goals seven times, and in one other he allowed two goals on six shots in 24:45 in a 7-0 loss to Boston.
The goaltending issues have caught up with the Leafs, who have lost their last three games and five of their last six (1-4-1), the only win coming in a Gimmick. In those six games, Gustavsson and the latest contestant in the Leafs’ goaltending sweepstakes – Ben Scrivens – have been the netminders of record as the Leafs have been outscored 25-8 (excluding trick shot goals). Although for different reasons, the Leafs look like the Caps in terms of their recent win-loss history.
2. Caps fans have not had much of a chance to see defenseman and team captain Dion Phaneuf against Washington. He has only five career games in the books against Washington. Known as a big hitter, he is also an accomplished scorer from the blue line. At least until he arrived in Toronto. After recording 75 goals in five seasons in Calgary, Phaneuf has a total of 12 in 111 games with Toronto. There are only five teams in the NHL he has not scored a goal against, and Washington is one of them. This season he has two goals, both against Montreal.
3. Only three Leafs will dress for this game with as many as five goals for the season. In addition to Kessel and Lupul, there is Clarke MacArthur (6-2-8). He has more career goals against the Caps (six in 16 games) than he has against any other team in the U.S. (he has nine against Ottawa and seven against Montreal).
4. Only Carolina has more losses by three or more goals this season (six) than Toronto (five). It goes a long way to explaining how the Leafs can have a record of 10-7-2 while having a net differential of -11, which is ranked 13th in the Eastern Conference. When the Leafs are bad, they are awful.
5. Toronto has allowed at least one power play goal in 11 of 20 games so far this season, including six of ten home games. They have allowed at least two in seven games.
2. The Caps are losing the battle of the third period. When tied or behind after 40 minutes they are 4-6-1 (3-4-1 when tied after two periods). On the other hand, the Caps are dead last in the league when scoring the game’s first goal. They are 3-4-1 in such situations, the only team with a below-.500 record in terms of standings points earned. Silver lining…Washington has the best record in the league when allowing the first goal (7-2-0).
3. Washington has played eight games at home, nine on the road. But they have been credited with exactly 100 more hits at home (219) than on the road (119).
4. From the “Did You Know?” file…Did you know that the Caps are at 50.1 percent on faceoffs?
5. Matt Hendricks has yet to light the lamp in 17 games this season. But he does have one goal against the Maple Leafs in four career games. It came in Toronto as part of a 4-1 win over the Leafs last January 22nd.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Toronto: David Steckel
Of course. This will be Steckel’s first appearance against his former team as a member of the Maple Leafs, or any other team for that matter. When last we left Mr. Steckel, he was a top-notch player on faceoffs, a somewhat overrated penalty killer and defender, and a player not likely to pot a lot of goals (his career high is eight). At the moment he is 61.7 percent on draws (tops in the league), no Leaf has been on the ice for more power play goals against, and he is a minus-4 for the season (18th best on the club). He had a three-game goal scoring streak in late October, but he hasn’t had one since over a span of 11 games.
Washington: Tomas Vokoun
“Stopper.” It is an archaic baseball term and used to refer to a team’s starting pitcher who was most adept at stopping a losing streak. That is what goaltender Tomas Vokoun as to be in this instance. The Caps are 1-4-1 in their last six, and in their last four games have experienced a disturbing progression – one goal, two, three, and four allowed. And none of those games have come against high-flying offenses. Vokoun had a difficult stretch in which he allowed 11 goals in only 141 minutes over three games (a 4.66 GAA), but in his last two starts has stopped 60 of 63 shots on goal (.952 save percentage). His career record hints at his chances to be the “stopper” for the Caps. Vokoun is 8-3-0 against Toronto, with a 2.07 GAA and .933 save percentage along with two shutouts.
1. Keep shooting. Toronto has allowed four or more goals in four of their last six games, all losses. Of the 25 goals allowed in those six games, ten of them have come in the third period (they shut out only one of those six teams in the third period). Only one team in the league has allowed more goals in the third period (Carolina). Keep shooting, and this team will likely crack.
2. Beware the power play. If the Leafs have done one thing right lately, it is scoring on the power play. In their last four games Toronto is 4-for-12 (33.3 percent). The Caps had killed off 15 shorthanded situations in a row until giving up two in their last four situations against Winnipeg on Thursday.
3. Don’t worry about quantity…worry about quality. Phil Kessel has 13 goals, but they come about in an odd way. Seven times this season Kessel has five or more shots on goal in a game. He scored goals in four of them (five total). In nine games in which he had three of fewer shots on goal, he has goals in five of them, five goals in all. It doesn’t seem to matter how many – shots that is – just how.
In the end, we are left with two teams who are in the same place by similar paths. Hot starts followed by a cool down. It might have been expected from one team – the Leafs – and not from the other. The Caps’ problems are matters of process – maintaining focus, paying attention for 60 minutes, being faithful to their systems. Toronto’s problems are more structural. Their best goaltender is out, and they have suffered considerably as a result. If the Caps keep their focus, pay attention for 60 minutes, and do things the right way, they win. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.
Caps 4 – Maple Leafs 2