Fans had their chance to say goodbye to Brooks Laich, traded to the Maple Leafs last weekend after appearing in 807 regular season and playoff games over 12 years with the Caps. Then the Caps tended to business.
They opened the scoring late in the first period from a very unexpected source. Martin Marincin tried to bang the puck up the wall and out of danger, but the attempt was flagged down by Evgeny Kuznetsov, who worked it to T.J. Oshie skating around the top of the right wing circle. Oshie kicked the puck to his stick, then slid it over to Taylor Chorney skating down the left side. Chorney wristed a shot that sailed over goalie Jonathan Bernier’s left shoulder, and it was 1-0 at the 18:15 mark.
The Caps made it 2-0 just 27 seconds later, this time from a much more familiar source. Oshie got it started when he beat a Leaf to a loose puck and directed it to the right wing wall. He followed it up, pestering Nazem Kadri long enough for Nicklas Backstrom to grab the puck and move in through the faceoff circle. With two Leafs bracketing him, he slid a pass past a third Leaf where Alex Ovechkin one-timed it past Bernier at the 18:43 mark.
Toronto got one back early in the second period when Nikita Soshnikov rang a shot off the pipe and behind goalie Philipp Grubauer for his first NHL career goal at the 1:37 mark. The Caps held off the Leafs for the rest of the period, but Toronto tied it in the third when Colin Greening took a pass from Peter Holland in the high slot and fired a shot over Grubauer’s glove to make it 2-2 at the 8:16 mark.
Then a Toronto rookie made a mistake. Soshnikov, who scored his first NHL goal earlier in the game but also took a double minor penalty in the second period, was sent to the box for his third minor penalty of the game for boarding Karl Alzner. The Caps needed just 11 seconds to make Soshnikov and the Maple Leafs pay. Oshie, who had an excellent game in all, won the ensuing faceoff, and the puck found its way to the stick of Nicklas Backstrom. Looking to thread a pass across to Ovechkin on the other side of the ice and finding that path blocked by a Toronto defense leaning in that direction, Backstrom eased the puck out to Matt Niskanen at the top of the zone. Niskanen fired a shot that Marcus Johansson, screening at the top of the crease, jumped away from at the last instant, and the puck sailed over Bernier’s glove to put the Caps ahead for good, and the Caps skated off with a 3-2 win.
-- After Matt Niskanen scored with 10:29 left in the game, the Caps would record the next nine shots, depriving the Maple Leafs of a shot on goal for 9:01 after the Niskanen strike. Toronto did close with a flurry – three shots in the final 1:28 and a lot of commotion around the Washington net in the last seconds – but it was too little, too late.
-- Brooks Laich logged 14:17 in his return to Verizon Center, 4:10 of it on the power play. It was the first time this season he recorded any power play ice time.
-- Nicklas Backstrom had two assists. That makes 15 multi-point games this season, tied for tenth in the league. It was the 109th time in his career he recorded a multi-assist game. Since he came into the league, only Sidney Crosby (111), Joe Thornton (115), and Henrik Sedin (126) have more.
-- Maybe you can see the signs that the Caps are starting to get ready for the playoffs by not pushing their big guns too hard. Case in point. Alex Ovechkin logged 17:40 in ice time in this game, the second consecutive game he finished with less than 19 minutes of ice time. The combined 36:17 of ice time over his last two games is his lowest in consecutive games in almost two months, having logged 35:45 in consecutive games on January 5th and 7th against Boston and the New York Islanders. It is something that bears watching.
-- What a game T.J. Oshie had – three assists (a personal best as a Capital), plus-2, two shots on goal, a shot attempt blocked, a missed shot, a hit, three takeaways, a blocked shot, and he won two of three draws. He gets the all-you-can-eat buffet coupon.
-- Daniel Winnik played in his first game for the Caps and had modest success against his old club. He logged 13:11 in ice time, 2:07 of it killing penalties, had a shot on goal, three hits, and a takeaway.
-- Evgeny Kuznetsov might get a buffet coupon of his own. He was not quite as evident in his all-around impact as Oshie, but he was all over the ice. An assist, a shot on goal, two shot attempts blocked, a missed shot, a hit, a takeaway, and he won half of the 12 draws he took. He has points in four of his last five games and has not gone consecutive games without a point since January 7th and 9th against the Islanders and Rangers. Since then he is 7-22-29, plus-11, in 22 games.
-- Connor Carrick recorded an assist against his former Capital teammates and recorded a pair of hits in 14:18 of ice time, 1:57 of it on the Maple Leaf power play.
-- Philipp Grubauer continues to shine when called upon. His 27-save performance was solid, continuing a fine run. In his last 11 appearances he is 4-3-0, 1.68, .943.
-- The Caps seemed to fight off a touch of boredom, or perhaps distraction given they were facing former teammates for the first time. They dominated possession in the first period with 12 shot attempt to five for Toronto at 5-on-5. Toronto turned the tables in the middle frame, out-attempting the Caps 19-10 at fives. Washington carried the third, 14-13, aided by a fine defensive effort after the Niskanen go-ahead goal (numbers from war-on-ice.com).
In the end…
No, it wasn’t as pretty at one might have expected against a team as young and struggling as much as Toronto is. On the other hand, this is the sort of the “we can’t seem to get up for teams like this” kind of game the Caps would have lost outright in previous years. They got a chance to give Brooks Laich a proper send-off, and they won the game. Frankly, that’s usually considered a pretty good night. But now it’s time to stiffen up and buckle down. Back-to-back games against the Rangers and in Boston against the Bruins are sure to pose a considerable challenge. The “B” game won’t do against that pair of opponents.