The Washington Capitals earned them this afternoon by jumping on the Toronto Maple Leafs early, withstanding a Maple Leaf assault of shots in the second period, then playing a smart tactical game in the third period punctuated by a Troy Brouwer empty net goal with 3.9 seconds left to give the Caps a 4-2 win over the Maple Leafs at Verizon Center.
The Caps threatened to run the Maple Leafs out of the building in the first period, posting three goals over a span of 5:10 to take a 3-0 lead. The Caps lit the lamp after Mike Green rang the iron to the right of goalie James Reimer on a power play. The Caps recoverd the puck and worked it back around the formation – Alex Ovechkin to Mike Green at the top of the offensive zone, over to Nicklas Backstrom at the right wing wall, down to Marcus Johansson at the goal line extended to Reimer’s left, back out to Troy Brouwer in the slot. A one timer later and it was Caps 1 – Maple Leafs 0.
Just over two minutes later it was the Caps’ third line grinding out a goal. All three players on that line – Joel Ward, Jason Chimera, and Eric Fehr – worked the wall from the goal line in, Ward moving the puck out of the left wing corner behind the net and up the wall to Fehr. Carl Gunnarson shouldered Fehr to the ice, but not before Fehr slid the puck back down the wall where Chimera could find it. Chimera kicked it out to Karl Alzner at the top of the offensive zone. Alzner fired, but Reimer did not play the puck cleanly, the puck squirting out to his right. It was just enough room for Ward to outduel Dion Phaneuf for the puck, Ward chipping it to the goal mouth and off the skate of Jason Chimera past Reimer as he was tumbling to the ice.
Less than two minutes later and the Caps on another power play, Evgeny Kuznetsov started the play from the right wing wall, sending the puck to Joel Ward in the slot. Ward sent it right back, allowing Kuznetsov to restart the play. As Kuznetsov was receiving the puck from Ward, Dustin Penner was setting up at the edge of the crease to Reimer’s left. There were two pieces to the plot unfolding at this point, Kuznetsov looking for a passing lane and Penner peeking into the slot to see if a teammate was there. When Kuznetsov sent the puck to Penner, the peeking paid off. Penner backhanded a pass through the crease right on the stick of Joel Ward. Ward got the goal that he might have thought he had less than three minutes earlier, slamming the puck past Reimer into the back of the Toronto net to make it 3-0.
If the two-goal lead is the most dangerous in hockey, the three-goal lead might be the most exasperating. Toronto got one back late in the third period when a bouncing puck in the Caps’ end eluded Nicklas Backstrom in the high slot. Troy Bodie jumped on it and flipped a shot over Jaroslav Halak’s blocker and under the cross bar to make it 3-1 at the first intermission.
The Maple Leafs closed to within a goal eight minutes into the second period when Dion Phaneuf slid off to the left point and wristed a floater that somehow did not hit any of the five players who looked to be in the path of the shot. Halak never saw the puck flying past him, and it was 3-2, Caps, with the Leafs grabbing the momentum.
That would be as close as Toronto would get, though. Halak shut the door over the rest of the second period, especially when Toronto would end up with three power plays. In the third the Caps played more intelligently and stifled the Leaf’s attempts at regaining the momentum they had in the second period. Toronto managed only seven shots on goal in the third period, none in the last 4:57 of the game. When Troy Brouwer banked one off the boards in front of the players’ bench from about 140 feet, and Nicklas Backstrom safeguarded the shot into the Maple Leafs’ net for the empty netter, it was a 4-2 win for the Caps.
-- Nice symmetry for Joel Ward today. His assist on the Chimera goal was his 20th of the season, the second time he hit the 20-assist mark in his career and first since he had 21 in 2009-2010 with Nashville. His goal was his 20th of the season, the first time he reached that mark in his seven-year career.
-- OK, let’s get this out of the way quick. Alex Ovechkin was minus-2 and is now minus-31. Only Edmonton’s Nail Yakupov among 848 skaters this season has a bigger minus (minus-33). Here’s the thing, though. This is supposed to be because Ovechkin doesn’t play defense. He has been on ice for as many goals against as James van Riemsdyk, and fewer than six other forwards. He’s not inspiring as a defensive player, but it could be worse.
-- Speaking of Ovechkin, he had just one shot on goal, that coming at the 9:15 mark of the third period.
-- Chimera’s goal broke a 12-game streak without one. It had been his longest streak without a goal since he had a 16-game drought in November.
-- Karl Alzner’s two assists represent his first multi-point game of the season and first since he had three assists in a 7-6 win over Anaheim on February 16, 2011. It was his first multi-point game at home in his career.
-- The Caps had 33 shots on goal, 18 of them from four players: Mike Green (5), Troy Brouwer (5), Jason Chimera (4), and Joel Ward (4).
-- The Caps allowed the Maple Leafs – the number three power play going into the game – only power play three opportunities. That made it seven straight games in which the Caps faced three or fewer shorthanded situations. In those games the Caps are 13-for-16 killing penalties (81.3 percent).
-- On the other side, the Caps were 2-for-4 on the power play, making them 12-for-32 over their last ten games (37.5 percent).
-- Admit it…when Jason Chimera was whacked on a breakaway by Jake Gardiner with just 3:02 left, you were screaming, “penalty shot!” You want Chimera taking that shot? He does not have a shootout goal since the 2006-2007 season with Columbus. Take the penalty.
-- We are sure he did not know it at the time, but if Nicklas Backstrom had nudged that last shot by Troy Brouwer the last 18 inches into the net, the goal would have lifted him into a tie for eighth in points in the league. As it is, his 66 points (he did have an assist for the game) is tied for tenth with three other players: Evgeni Malkin, John Tavares, and Joe Pavelski.
-- When Brouwer scored that goal it cemented the win for the Caps and dropped the Maple Leafs to 2-15-5 when allowing four or more goals, their only two wins coming in extra time.
-- The Caps took 28 draws in the offensive end (winning 13 – 46.4 percent), only 20 in the defensive end (winning 14 – 70.0 percent).
-- Note that while the NHL’s play-by-play shot distances have a bit of quirkiness in them, the official record had the Caps scoring their first three goals from a combined distance of 32 feet. It is not often you see the Caps getting that kind of – or volume of – net pressure.
In the end…
It was a good weekend – four out of four points and just the thing the Caps need to send them west for what promises to be a challenging trip to California. Let us not kid ourselves, though. The Caps are moving up in weight class in a big way with these opponents coming up, but the Caps got good scoring balance this weekend, disciplined play for the most part (only six shorthanded situations faced, all of them killed off) and timely goaltending. It is not a bad recipe for success.