With the Washington Capitals in Toronto on Tuesday night to play the Maple Leafs, all eyes shot to Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin. Perhaps the greatest goal scorer in NHL history, Ovechkin has a track record of getting on the board when he visits Toronto. However, before the puck even dropped Tuesday, Ovechkin decided to make his mark on the matchup early on in the day.
When asked about the Leafs, Ovechkin didn’t mince words: “It’s up to them how they want to do it. If they want to play for themselves, or if they want to win a Stanley Cup. They have to play differently.” It took Ovechkin and the Capitals a long time to figure it out before winning the Stanley Cup in 2017, and the 32-year-old Russian sniper wasn’t shy to reminisce on his journey.
For Leafs coach Mike Babcock, it might have been a chance for him to reiterate a message to his players without really having to say anything himself this time. “Things like that always sting way more when it’s right,” said Babcock prior to puck drop on Tuesday.
Considering the Leafs were coming off of an abysmal effort on Saturday night in Montreal, these pre-game antics seemed to light a fire under the Maple Leafs to start the game Tuesday.
Just 40 seconds into the game, Andreas Johnsson answered the bell with his fourth of the season on a perfect shot past the glove of Braden Holtby. A little over two minutes later, Auston Matthews’ took a slightly high hit from Capitals’ forward Nicklas Backstrom, prompting Morgan Rielly to retaliate and take a cross-checking penalty. Although the Capitals were held without any serious threatening opportunities, it was an irresponsible play by Rielly. A little over halfway into the period, John Carlson beat Frederik Andersen with a bullet shot to tie the game at 1-1. Shortly after the goal, Jake Muzzin took a charge from Tom Wilson, and Muzzin skated off in discomfort. Although the hit went uncalled, Wilson took six strides at Muzzin before jamming his knee into Muzzin’s upper-leg. Muzzin left the game with a little over seven minutes to go in the first and did not return. The first period seemed to lack flow once the parade of penalties began. The shots in the first were 7-7, and score remained tied at 1-1. Washington’s power play went 0-for-2 in the period, and Toronto’s went 0-for-3, with neither looking particularly threatening.
Early in the second period, Alex Kerfoot got sloppy with his stick on the back check to take a two-minute highsticking penalty. After a decent job on the penalty kill by the Leafs, Cody Ceci took a holding penalty with Kerfoot still in the box. Just six seconds after the faceoff, John Carlson blasted his second of the game past Frederik Andersen to give the Capitals a 2-1 lead. In a period largely controlled by the Capitals 5-on-5, the game still seemed to lack pace, but the Capitals did an admirable job defending Toronto at even-strength. The frustration built at Scotiabank Arena, due in large part to the powerplay. When Jonas Siegenthaler took an interference penalty with 4:40 to go in the second period, the Leafs stood at 0-for-5 on the power play for the game with just two shots to show for it. Although the Leafs did not capitalize on the man advantage, they managed to get some shots, but the crowd of boo’s roared towards the end of the man advantage. With just under a minute to go, William Nylander skated the puck into the Capitals end and below the goal line. Nylander set up a D-to-D pass from Rielly to Tyson Barrie, whose point shot hit Auston Matthews blade for the tip and into the net to tie the game back at 2-2 after two periods. In an otherwise extremely frustrating period for Toronto, the play was a bright spot for the snakebitten Tyson Barrie. The shots in the second period were 10-8 Toronto, and Toronto’s power play sat at 0-for-6 after two periods.
Early in the third period, Tom Wilson got caught running around again, this time charging at Leafs’ defensemen Tyson Barrie. Wilson got two minutes for charging, and also a coincidental minor for roughing along with Leafs’ forward Frederik Gauthier, sending the Leafs to the powerplay. Auston Matthews made quick work of that. Just nineteen seconds into the powerplay, William Nylander somehow snuck a pass through the slot to Matthews who perfectly picked a corner past Holtby to give the Leafs a 3-2 lead. That goal was Matthews’ 11th of the season, and tenth goal in nine games at home this season. It was the first golden opportunity for the Leafs power play of the night, and their sniper made no mistake. Just over two minutes later, TJ Oshie took the puck to the net and fed a perfect pass to Ovechkin who made no mistake to tie the game at 3-3. The third period featured more flow and end-to-end action, including a huge save by Braden Holtby on Alex Kerfoot during a mad scramble late in the third period. The shots in the third were 13-11 Washington, but the game needed overtime to find a winner.
Just twenty-one seconds into overtime, William Nylander got called for tripping Tom Wilson to give the Capitals a powerplay. It was somewhat of a lazy penalty by Nylander, but seeing Wilson slightly out of reach, he presumably found it a better idea to save the goal and take the penalty. The Leafs were nearly able to kill the penalty, and almost scored a goal of their own on a 2-on-1 rush from Marner and Rielly, but the transition caused a tired Marner to take a highsticking penalty on the back check. With one second left, the Leafs would have essentially another two minutes of time to kill. After nearly killing off Marner’s penalty, it was only a matter of time until Washington’s lethal power play made them pay. None other than Alexander Ovechkin scored the overtime winner from his office the same way he’s done hundreds of times before, and the Capitals took a 4-3 win over the Maple Leafs after absolutely dominating overtime. The final shots were 34-28 for the Capitals.
Leafs Player of the Game
William Nylander. The Leafs top line was far and away their best line 5-on-5 tonight. Even though Matthews had two goals, Nylander gained the zone with possession on each of the Leafs goals despite having just one assist to show for it. He also helped great some sustained pressure, and created a few other chances that ultimately resulted in no goals. Nylander has been the Leafs’ possession driver this season, and that’s a good sign. He is starting to build off of a strong final 20 or so games from last year in which he was rarely rewarded. This is an encouraging sign for the Leafs.
Game In A Nutshell
The Leafs continued to show the same bad habits, or perhaps, strategies that they have all season on the powerplay. The zone entries looked stale and repetitive, with Rielly skating to the Leafs blue line just to reverse it back to Matthews or Marner to try and jam it across the Capital’s blue line with possession. It seems to work one of every four times, with the other three being a waste of twenty seconds or so. Once the puck is in, the Leafs seem to lack direction. Their power plays have this sense of anticipation that they are trying to build up to a set play that never comes. Toronto’s power play sits at 21.1% through fourteen games, which is good enough for mid-pack. The problem is that Tuesday night was a game where they earned their powerplays, and forced the Capitals (a good hockey team) to make unnecessary mistakes. The Leafs should have been able to generate more momentum in a game where they have eight power play opportunities. Despite another solid night at 5-on-5, a good team should be able to count on their power play to give them the edge on nights where they have the opportunity.