The Washington Capitals look to make it three wins in a row when they come back home on Sunday to face the Toronto Maple Leafs in the last meeting of the clubs of the season. After losing the first meeting of the season, 7-1, in Toronto the Caps have taken the last two meetings – 4-2 at Verizon Center on December 9th and by the same 4-2 score in Toronto on February 25th.
Toronto comes into this game hanging on by their fingernails – by a fingernail – to playoff contention. And that fingernail is cracked and falling off. It looked a lot better a month or so ago for the Leafs. After beating Edmonton for their third win in a row on February 6th, Toronto was 28-19-6, in second place in the Northeast Division and in sixth place in the East.
Since then, however, Toronto’s season has gone right into the dumper. Starting with a 2-1 loss at Winnipeg on February 7th, The Maple Leafs are 2-11-2, one win coming in overtime against the Oilers and the other against the hopeless Montreal Canadiens. They have not won a game at home since that February 6th game against Edmonton. The numbers in that run are not pretty:
Goals for: 2.20
Goals against: 3.60
Power Play: 8-for-48 (16.7 percent)
Penalty Kill: 28-for-33 (84.9 percent)
One-goal wins/losses: 1/8
Wins/Losses by 3+ Goals: 0/2
Part of the problem is that their schedule has been grueling. Of the 15 games that make up their 2-11-2 run, nine of their losses have come against playoff-eligible teams. Two others have come against teams currently in ninth place (Winnipeg and San Jose). But even with that the Leafs are this close. In their last nine games, six of their eight losses have come by one goal, including one in overtime and another in a Gimmick.
Having come up on the wrong side of all these decisions has left the Leafs in a dark place – six points behind the Caps for eighth place with 14 games to play. For the Leafs, their season almost boils down to this game, a game in which they have to take the ice a day after losing in a trick shot competition to the Flyers and losing an hour of sleep in the process with the change to Daylight Savings Time.
Leafs fans probably smell a conspiracy in the whole setting the clocks ahead thing.
Here is how the two teams compare in their numbers:
(click pic for larger image)
1. In one important respect Toronto’s goal scoring has been drying up. Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, and Mikhail Grabovski are the top three goals scorers for the Maple Leafs. In their last 14 games, Kessel has four goals, Lupul has four, and Grabovsky has three. For all of them, that is a goal-scoring pace per 82 games that is less than the number of goals each has right now.
2. Second periods have killed the Leafs this season. They have allowed the highest number of second period goals (84) and scored 61 of their own. Their minus-23 goal differential in the middle period is the worst in the league. The Maple Leafs are a “plus” team in the first and third periods (plus-6 and plus-8, respectively).
3. Toronto has allowed more 5-on-5 goals this year than every team except Tampa Bay. Having the ninth best 5-on-5 goal total has not been enough to offset the problems at the defensive end.
4. No one seems to reflect more the Leafs’ woes than goalie Jonas Gustavsson. He has one win in his last nine decisions covering 11 appearances (1-5-3, 3.51, .886).
5. And it’s not as if James Reimer has been much better, if at all. Reimer has lost his last four decisions and six of his last seven. In addition to his 1-6-0 record, he has a GAA of 4.27 and a save percentage of .862. Given that Gustavsson played an lost in the 1-0 Gimmick loss to the Flyers on Saturday, Reimer would seem to be the choice for Sunday’s game against Washington.
2. In the season series, 13 different Caps have points, and seven different Caps share the nine goals they have. Dennis Wideman is the leading scorer for the Caps in the series (2-2-4).
3. Jason Chimera has taken a minor penalty in each of the three games against Toronto this season. Overall the Caps have almost as many different players having taken penalties (11) as they have point-getters (13).
4. In the first game of the season series the Caps allowed Toronto 16 shots on goal in the first period, the Maple Leafs scoring three goals on their way to a 7-1 win. Toronto managed only a total of 17 shots on goal in the first period of the next two games of the series, scoring on none of them, as the Caps took a pair of 4-2 decisions.
5. Alex Ovechkin has 21 shots on goal in the three games against Toronto but does not have a goal. He does lead the team with three assists.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Toronto: Nikolai Kulemin
Last year, Nikolai Kulemin set a career high of 30 goals scored, almost doubling his total from the previous season (16). This year, the goals have been much harder to come by. He has seven for the season and only two in his last 26 games. He has only one road goal in the 2012 portion of the season. At the moment his seven goals is his lowest total of any of his years in organized hockey dating back to 2003-2004 when he was a 17-year old skating for Metallurg Magnitogorsk-2 in Russia. He is 2-4-6 in 14 career games against Washington.
Washington: Dennis Wideman
Since appearing in the All Star Game in Ottawa, Dennis Wideman is 1-7-8, minus-5 in 20 games. He has picked things up of late, though, with assist in each of his last three games and four in his last six contests. He has had his moments against Toronto over the years. He is 7-13-20 in 26 career games against Toronto, including his team leading scoring line of 2-2-4 in three games this year. Six of his seven career goals against the Maple Leafs have come on the power play
1. No Let Down. Winning two points in Boston was good, but giving them away against a struggling team at home would wipe out that good work. That means playing a first period a lot like the one they played against Boston, one that featured a more urgent pressure than they have exhibited in too many games this season.
2. Make Toronto work on defense. Toronto has not allowed a power play in any of its last five games. That might be a product of having faced only nine shorthanded situations in those five games. In fact, Toronto has faced more than three shorthanded situations only three times in their last 29 games. The Caps have struggled on their own in forcing teams to go shorthanded (only eight power plays in their last five games). Making Toronto work on the penalty kill with more frequency could be outside their comfort zone.
3. Big D. Only three teams have scored more goals on the road than the Maple Leafs. Even if they do have only 19 goals in their last eight road games (2.38/game), they are a team that has enough firepower to make the Caps’ evening difficult if provided too many openings.
In the end, this is one of those games that can pose problems. Guys come home after a trip, have to deal with what they have to do at home before they head back on the road. And there might be a bit of looking ahead to that five-game road trip since so much importance is being attached to it. But this is a chance to bury Toronto’s dim playoff chances once and for all, and if things break right, take over the Southeast Division lead with a win (if Florida loses in regulation time to Carolina on Sunday. What it boils down to is that the Caps are at a place on the calendar and the standings where focus should not be a problem.
Capitals 4 – Maple Leafs 2