WASHINGTON D.C. – As the chase for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs has dragged on, no team in the hunt for the eighth spot has broken away from the pack for a substantial amount of time. The Washington Capitals are as guilty as any team for not breaking away from the pack, but now find themselves on a three-game winning streak after a 2-0 victory Sunday over the Toronto Maple Leafs in front of an announced 18,506 fans at Verizon Center.
The Capitals (35-28-6, 76 points) now find themselves in eighth place and four points ahead of Winnipeg and Buffalo – both of which are tied for ninth – and all three squads have played 69 games.
“We needed that,” Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said of the win. “We kind of knew that we had to try and set ourselves up a little bit for a tough road trip coming up and we haven’t been very good. So it’s a nice feeling but by no means are we comfortable. We’re trying to go for that division championship … it’s going to help us out if we can.”
Said Washington forward Matt Hendricks: “You don’t want to look at it as breathing room by any means, because it’s not. One, two bad days and the next thing you know, you’re outside looking in again. So we need to keep to the grindstone and keep doing the things that we’ve been doing and try to keep winning hockey games.”
The Florida Panthers, after its 2-0 win over Carolina Sunday, stand in first place in the Southeast Division with 77 points in 68 games. Washington will now head out on a five-game road trip, and will face Winnipeg Friday.
The Capitals got goals from Brooks Laich (14th of the year) and Mathieu Perreault (12), while goaltender Michal Neuvirth made 23 saves for Washington. Laich’s goal was of the short-handed variety about halfway through the first period. Laich, who was fore-checking Toronto defensemen Jake Gardiner near the Maple Leafs’ blue line, was able to pick off a drop pass by Gardiner. Laich skated in towards Jonas Gustavsson and fired the puck home.
“It was a great play by Brooksie to bury it after [the turnover],” said Washington head coach Dale Hunter. “We do the same play. So it’s a little high risk, so if you read it right, you can get breakaways on it. And it’s happened against us a few times too.”
Perreault’s goal occurred 42 seconds into the third period after a shot from Alexander Semin hit some bodies in front and deflected towards Perreault, who tapped it in for the goal.
Perreault and Semin were working on a line with Jason Chimera, and the trio brought good energy to the ice, fore-checking hard and creating scoring chances throughout the game. “Matty had a good game tonight,” Hunter said. “He’s a smart player. He had the puck a lot tonight, and made some good plays – him and Alex and Chimmer.”
Both Toronto and Washington played Saturday, so each team was coming into Verizon Center with less than ideal rest. The Maple Leafs, though, had a tougher schedule break than the Capitals, having lost in Toronto at night. The Capitals won in Boston in the afternoon. Washington appeared to be quicker for most of the game with a harder fore-check, especially early in the contest.
“They’re kind of struggling a little bit right now too, so if you get on top of them right away, and confidence is not really there,” Alzner said. “So that was the main thing for us. And kind of keep the momentum going … from yesterday afternoon. It was a good win and we were on a very emotional high. And I think a team can kind of sense that if you come out strong.”