The Washington Capitals have spoiled their followers lately, instilling an expectation that they will win every game - especially against foes that have worse records. Of course this is a silly notion. But what we have seen from this team is its ability to avoid consecutive lackluster performances, giving us plenty of hope for tonight's rematch in the District.
The Caps were, dare I say it, outplayed between the pipes. Vesa Toskala stopped 30 of Washington's 32 shots, bettering Olie Kolzig's 21 save effort. Although Olie by no means played as poorly as we have seen him play recently, his league-worst save percentage was lowered just a wee bit more.
Although Kolzig did make some fine stops (something every goalie at this level does,) his poorly placed rebound with the scored tied in the game's final minute left the puck like a sitting duck, quacking for someone to put it past him. Mats Sundin, who beat Alexander Semin to the biscuit, obliged. Hopefully Semin will one day learn from his buddy how important defensive play is. Alex Ovechkin figured it out after a couple seasons so maybe Semin is just a year away himself.
In Olie's defense, the puck skipped a couple feet before reaching him which changed the puck's direction just enough to force Kolzig to react late and lose control of the rebound. Nonetheless, he stopped 87.5% of the shots he faced while his counterpart, Toskala, stopped 93.8% -- this is how goaltending can mark the difference between winning and losing.
Moving away from the cage just a bit and we come to the defensemen. Here is where we find a punishing performance by John Erskine, easily his best game of the season. He laid out the pest known as Darcy Tucker with an open ice shoulder hit that reminded me of one Scott Stevens. Erskine wasn't done -- Jiri Tlusty can attest to that as he was sent flying into the boards by the 6'4" 220 pounder. Erskine's hard hitting was rewarded with a season high 21:17 of ice time.
Another Capitals defender received more playing time than he'd seen all season (which I guess really isn't saying much.) Steve Eminger, who was given the start in place of Jeff Schultz who appeared "tired," rewarded Bruce Boudreau with another solid performance featuring a hit on Alexei Ponikarovsky that will likely sideline the winger "for weeks." In nearly 18 minutes of ice time, Eminger added an assist and played another sound defensive game.
Mike Green did not. Reacquainted with his partner Shaone Morrisonn, Green was a -2 in 21:44 of ice time, the least he's played in nearly six weeks. He wiped out behind the net and was slow to regain position, allowing the Leafs to score a go ahead goal late in the second period. Morrisonn, a -2 himself, looked equally ineffective at times in his return to the lineup.
Offensively, the Caps had their chances but Toskala was strong to the task. Despite garnering 32 shots on goal, Washington appeared out of sync as the Leafs slowed the pace and did not allow the Caps' top guns to get in the flow of the game. Ovechkin did manage to score on 8 shots (7 more didn't reach goal) but he was not his usual physical presence.
Ovechkin's goal, his 6th straight game with at least one tally, gives him 39 on the season. Not only has he moved two goals ahead of Ilya Kovalchuk (who will sit out tonight's game with a one game suspension for a hit from behind,) Ovechkin is now in a four-way tie for 2nd in points with 63, only three behind Vinny Lecavalier for the top spot.
All the way around, it was a relatively quiet night for the offense which was held under four goals for the first time in six games. Since the end of December, the Capitals have not scored fewer than four goals in back to back games. With Brent Johnson scheduled to play tonight, they may not need to in order to win.
A victory would move the Caps to within one point of idle Carolina for first place in the Southeast heading into the All-Star Break. And the Caps would still have two games in hand. Even with a regulation loss (something Washington has avoided in consecutive games since Boudreau took over,) the Caps will be right in the thick of things with over two months to play. Any Caps fan has to be ecstatic considering where they were just two months ago.