The Caps beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-4 last night at the Verizon Center in a thriller that saw three lead changes, spectacular goaltending, and a shootout victory for the home team. The teams traded three-goal bursts in the second and third periods as the momentum swung back and forth over 65 minutes. The Caps prevailed in the shootout on goals by Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin and two saves by Michal Neuvirth to earn two points in the standings.
Semin’s full range of talent and fury were on display last night. The speedy winger ended the evening as the first star of the game, but also spent four minutes in the box for needless penalties. He assisted on the Caps’ first goal, scored a power play goal late in regulation to tie the game, then blasted a point blank slapshot shot past Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson in the shootout to seal the win and make up for his two offensive zone penalties. “He was actually sick tonight and we didn’t know if he would be scratched or not until after warm up,” said Boudreau. “But he wanted to play and so he did.”
The Caps looked good in the early going, crashing the net and opening up the ice with long passes. The defense also protected Neuvirth, allowing few scoring opportunities. But for the 9th time in 12 games, the Caps allowed the opponent to score first. A poorly executed breakout by the Caps gave Toronto’s Nikolai Kulemin skating room in the slot, and he scored off the post when Neuvirth over-committed to give the Leafs a 1-0 lead with 5 minutes to play in the first period. It was only the Leafs’ third shot of the game.
Alex Ovechkin got things going for the Caps in the second frame, getting a jump past Toronto defenseman Luke Schenn and drawing a penalty. The power play unit lit the lamp when Semin fed Mike Green from circle to circle and Green beat Gustavsson top shelf to even the score. The bounces started to go the Caps way. On a dump and chase behind the goal, Boyd Gordon took a quick glance and found Jason Chimera alone at the edge of the crease for a one-timer. “I called to Gordo and he made a great pass right on my tape,” said Chimera. “It was one of those bang-bang plays.”
Less than a minute later, Tomas Fleischmann tipped a John Carlson slapshot past Gustavsson to make it 3-1. The Caps kept the pressure on, but Gustavsson showed why he was selected for the bronze medal Swedish Olympic team, lunging across the crease to make a spectacular stick save on countryman Nicklas Backstrom on a two-on-one with Ovechkin.
The Caps were unable to capitalize on a power play to start the third period and appeared content to sit on the two goal lead. Then Toronto came charging back, outshooting the Caps 15-4 over one stretch. The Leafs retook the lead 4-3 with a burst of three goals in a span of 3:03, including a breakaway goal by Kris Versteeg and power play goal by Tyler Bozak. “The game of hockey is a game of emotion,” said Boudreau. “They come up and we get down. We knew they were going to come.”
Boudreau shortened his bench and tried different line combinations to get back in the game. It was Semin once again who provided the spark, scooping up a rebound below the goal line and deftly tucking it behind Gustavsson to tie the game 4-4 with five minutes to play in regulation. “There aren’t too many guys in the National Hockey League that have hands like that – that can put it in there that quickly,” said Boudreau after the game.
Overtime has been Ovie-time this season, and the Caps captain did not disappoint. Playing 4-on-4, Ovechkin made a solo rush the length of the ice and drew another penalty to earn the Caps another power play. The Caps camped out in the Leafs zone with crisp puck movement and bombarded shots on goal, hitting the post twice, but couldn’t find the twine.
In the shootout Gustavsson robbed Backstrom again on the first shot, but Neuvirth – in his first NHL shootout – stopped both shots he faced. Ovechkin beat Gustavsson through the five-hole and Semin ended it with a rocket over the Gustavsson’s glove.
The Caps have a day off tonight before facing the Bruins again tomorrow night at Verizon Center.