The Washington Capitals put forth one of their best all-around efforts of the season in Tuesday night’s 5-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs and served notice that they should be seen as a legitimate threat to the top teams in the Eastern Conference and not just their lowly Southeast division rivals.
The Leafs entered this game as winners of seven of their last nine games and left as just another squashed bug on the windshield of the Caps late season surge. With the win the Caps have now won eight straight and thirteen of their last fifteen games, while maintaining a four point lead over the Winnipeg Jets for the Southeast division title.
The Capitals were in control of this game from almost the beginning and they kept the home crowd entertained throughout. For the most part, the Caps won with a familiar recipe of strong goaltending and timely scoring. Braden Holtby continued to look comfortable in net and turned away all but one of thirty shots on goal. On offense, the Caps got tallies from five different players, including Alex Ovechkin’s league-leading twenty-eighth goal and Martin Erat’s first goal as a Capital, as well as scores by Marcus Johansson (looking good on the top line), Troy Brouwer (recording his seventeenth goal of the season) and Jack Hillen (continuing to flash a lethal slapshot from the point). The Caps registered twenty-three shots by the midpoint of the game and finished with thirty-seven altogether.
The Caps power play fired on all cylinders Tuesday night, with crisp passing and determined yet controlled rushes up the ice, resulting in two goals with the man advantage. Once one of their Achilles heels this season, the power play has certainly become one of the their strengths, in large part due to the resurgence of Ovechkin who is usually on the ice for extended periods during each power play. Ovechkin’s goal on the power play this night was vintage OV—he set himself up in the circle, waited patiently for his teammates to find him, and one-timed a laser into the top corner before the goalie could fully adjust. Everyone in the building knew it was coming but the Leafs were helpless to stop it.
The Caps built a 4-0 lead midway through the second period and cruised from there, avoiding the same kind of letdown that cost them a four goal lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning only three nights prior. Capitals Coach Adam Oates didn’t remind his squad of the Lightning game during the second intermission saying he didn’t want to “plant the seed” of doubt in their heads.
Notwithstanding the dominating offensive performance by the Caps the most memorable moment for the home fans was the team’s quick defense of their teammate when Nicklas Backstrom was shoved into the boards from behind by Leafs Center Jay McClement with about five minutes remaining in the opening period. The play appeared to be a boarding violation and could have resulted in serious injury to the Capitals star. Ovechkin immediately took the law into his own hands (no penalty was called on McClement somehow) and pounced on McClement to the delight of the Verizon Center faithful. The crowd roared their approval of the team captain’s actions as Ovechkin was led to the penalty box to serve out his sentence for charging. The Caps methodically killed off the two minute Maple Leafs power play and the crowd once again cheered their leader as Ovechkin exited the box.
The Caps exacted their revenge less than two minutes after Ovechkin’s penalty ended when winger Jason Chimera targeted McClement on his next shift. Chimera landed a couple of minor blows as the players tied each other up and were sent off for five minutes each.
The team circled the wagons in defense of their actions after the game.
Oates offered that he “it was a clear board . . . we stick together . . . it’s important we have to protect our guys . . . that’s what team toughness is all about.”
“I would hope that ever single guy in the game would do the same thing” added Brouwer. “Chimmer did a great job in the very next shift . . . we have no problem taking those penalties . . . we have no problem killing those off.
Ovechkin himself remarked that “anybody would have done the same thing . . . it showed you can’t touch our best payers . . . it showed the character of the team . . . it showed everybody cares about each other.”
Ovechkin’s leadership is undeniable at this point. He is clearly playing at the top of his game and has taken the Caps power play to another level. His physical presence on the ice, as evidenced by his quick defense of his comrade last night, just adds to his greatness. Almost an afterthought during the first few weeks of the season Alex Ovechkin has now put himself into the league MVP discussion.
And the Caps have put themselves into the discussion of teams to look out for in the postseason (assuming they finish the job and get there). It’s hard to ignore an eight game win streak and a thorough dismantling of a team as hot as the Maple Leafs. Somebody has to win the Cup—why not the Caps?