Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth has been sitting idle for the better part of the last two months. He had not started (or even dressed for) a game since Nov. 22. On Friday night, Neuvirth finally returned to the Washington crease. Even better for him and the Capitals, he was excellent throughout the night, making 32 saves and helping the Caps to a 3-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I thought he played a great game,” says Caps coach Adam Oates of Neuvirth’s performance. “I really did. First period I think he had some shots that allowed him to get into the game, which is good for him. After the second goal he made a fantastic save that saved the game for us.”
The two teams played a sleepy first 10 minutes on Friday, understandable since both played and then traveled on Thursday night. Each team had a power play opportunity in the first frame. The Caps could get nothing going on their extra-man chance, but they had a couple of decent shorthanded looks at the net while the Leafs were a man to the good later on in the frame.
Toronto got its second power play four minutes into the second when Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf and Caps blueliner John Erskine were sent to the box, the latter being given an extra minor for roughing in the process. The Caps killed the Erskine minor, and seemed to draw some momentum from their labor.
Thirty-eight seconds after Erskine exited the box, the Caps went up 1-0. Mike Green pinched from the right point, keeping a puck alive and gaining possession along the half wall. He got the disc to Mikhail Grabovski, who carved to the slot and then put it on a tee for Alex Ovechkin. The Caps’ captain blasted a shot past Toronto netminder Jonathan Bernier to give Washington a 1-0 advantage at 6:39 of the second.
Only 41 seconds later, Grabovski was jailed for a tripping infraction of his own to give the Leafs third third power play in a span of just 13:40 of playing time. The Caps came within a dozen seconds of killing it, but could quite pull it off.
Toronto’s Tyler Bozak bested the Caps’ Brooks Laich in a right dot draw in the Washington zone. Phil Kessel gained control near the right point, and he skated the puck down the right wing wall. Meanwhile, James van Riemsdyk had staked out some prime real estate just off the near post. Kessel floated a shot toward the net from the bottom portion of the circle, and van Riemsdyk was able to redirect it past Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth to make it a 1-1 game at 9:08 of the middle stanza.
Things heated up a bit in the latter part of the period, with Caps winger Tom Wilson dropping the gloves and fighting with Toronto’s Carter Ashton. That proved to be the undercard bout, as veteran heavyweights Erskine and Colton Orr went toe to toe just five seconds later. Wilson and Erskine both got the best of their respective combatants.
Washington received a power play chance late in the frame when Nikolai Kulemin went off for his second offensive-zone infraction of the night, this one for tripping his former Toronto teammate Grabovski at 17:17.
The Caps put forth the best of their three power play bids to that point in the game, getting good scoring chances and several strong looks at the net. But Washington wasn’t able to muster the go-ahead goal.
It was the Leafs that managed to get that crucial “next goal” in a tie game in the third period. Kessel took a pass from van Riemsdyk as he gained the Washington line, and he fired a shot that ramped up off Caps defenseman Karl Alzner’s stick and over Neuvirth’s left shoulder to give Toronto its first lead of the night, a 2-1 advantage at the 54-second mark of the third.
Neuvirth’s brilliant stop on a Mason Raymond one-timer from point blank range just a minute after Kessel’s goal kept the Caps within striking distance.
Washington pulled even on a fluky goal at 4:36 of the third. Caps center NIcklas Backstrom curled around the back of the Toronto net and spun off his check, throwing a shot toward the crease. The puck glanced off the skate of Leafs forward Jay McClement and caromed in to make it a 2-2 game.
Midway through the period, Caps forward Marcus Johansson drew a tripping call on Toronto’s David Clarkson, putting Washington on the power play for the fourth time in the game.
The Capitals weren’t able to get the go-ahead goal with the man advantage, but they did so just seven seconds after Clarkson returned to action.
Ovechkin passed the puck diagonally from the left point down to Johansson, who was stationed just off the right half wall near the dot. Johansson pushed it right to Joel Ward in the diamond, and Ward’s one-timer had just enough to get through Bernier.
“I knew I didn’t get a good crack at it,” says Ward, “but I knew I was in a position I was kind of waiting for it and waiting for it and I knew I had some time there, so I was just hoping that Jojo would give me a chance to get a crack at it. I was a little upset at first because of the way it came off my stick, but I got enough for it to go in so it was definitely a good feeling to contribute.”
Neuvirth kept the Leafs at bay the rest of the way, making a strong stop on van Riemsdyk to preserve the slim lead.
The win was Washington’s second in as many nights, and it pulled the Caps even with Philadelphia for second place in the Metropolitan Division standings.
“We’ve been waiting for wins for a bit now,’ says Backstrom. “We lost four in a row before [Friday] against Tampa. We need to put together a couple of wins in a row, that’s what we are hoping. We got to play the same way. We need those wins, especially during this time of the year. It is important. It’s going to be hard to catch up if you’re not in the top there.”
For Toronto, Friday’s loss was its fourth in succession in the aftermath of the Leafs’ 3-2 shootout win over the Detroit Red Wings in the 2014 Winter Classic. Toronto has been outscored by a combined total of 21-7 in those four setbacks.
“When you lose hockey games you learn from it,” says Phaneuf, “and when you win hockey games you take the good and move forward. When you’re going through a stretch like we’re going through and wins are very tough to come by and goals are going off shin pads; that’s the way it is. You’ve got to work your way through it.”
NEUVIRTH IN NET – Neuvirth got the call in goal for the Capitals on Friday, his first starting assignment since Nov. 22 against Montreal, a 3-2 Caps loss at Verizon Center.
"I was nervous as hell," admits Neuvirth. "I couldn't really sleep in the pre-game nap. But the first time I stepped on the ice for the warm-up, I was feeling pretty good and confident. I just told myself, 'It's just another game.' I’ve been playing in this league for some time, and I was confident. It’s an unbelievable feeling right now."
The 25-year-old Czech Republic native made two starts in October and three in November, and he also made two relief appearances – both against Calgary – in October.
Neuvirth was expected to start on Nov. 29 against the Canadiens at Verizon Center, but he suffered a lower body injury when he stepped on a puck as he went onto the ice for warm-ups prior to that game. The Caps recalled Philipp Grubauer from AHL Hershey the next day, and Grubauer has made 10 starts in the 17 games since, including 10 of the team’s last 14 games going into Friday’s game against the Leafs.
Having three goaltenders on the roster for the last several weeks has been a difficult situation for the Caps’ staff and for the goalies, in particular Neuvirth and Braden Holtby.
The seven-week gap between starts is the longest of Neuvirth’s NHL career. Friday’s win was his third of the season (3-3-1) and his first since Nov. 2.
TURNING THE TIDE? – The Caps have now won consecutive contests for the first time since they earned three straight wins from Dec. 7-10. Washington has taken consecutive games in regulation for just the second time this season, and it has earned each of its last four victories without requiring overtime, also for the first time this season.
HOT HANDS – Ovechkin has a four-game scoring streak (two goals, three assists), matching his longest scoring run of the season. His 32 goals matches his total of last season; he played in all 48 games last season and has played in 42 of 44 Capitals games to date in 2013-14.
Johansson also has a four-game scoring streak (two goals, three assists), matching the longest run of his NHL career.
Backstrom also has a point in each of his last four games (one goal, three assists).
Green now has a point in three straight contests with five points (two goals, three assists) in that span. With 24 points (five goals, 19 assists) on the season, Green is now tied for 16th among all NHL defensemen in scoring.
Ward (one goal, two assists) also has points in three straight games. With 13 goals this season, he ranks second on the team and has matched the second best single-season total of his NHL career (2009-10).
ONLY OVI – Until Backstrom’s fortuitous goal that banked in off McClement, Ovechkin was the only Capital to have scored against the Leafs this season. Washington fired a total of 72 shots at Maple Leafs netminders with only two of Ovechkin’s shots lighting the lamp in a span of 109:36 this season before Backstrom found the range early in the third period.
BIG BAD JOHN – Erskine’s bout with Orr was the veteran defenseman’s first fight of the 2013-14 season and it came in his 19th game of the campaign. This is Erskine’s 12th season in the NHL, and this is the latest he’s ever dropped the gloves for the first time. In 2007-08, Erskine’s first fight game in his 15th game of the season. Four times in his career he has fought in his first game of a given campaign.
Erskine and Orr fought twice previously before Friday’s game, but it had been nearly eight years since the two last squared off. They first fought one another on March 29, 2006 when Erskine was a member of the New York Islanders and Orr was with the rival New York Rangers. Their second bout came just under two weeks later, on April 11, 2006.
BACK-TO-BACK ATTACK – Washington has now swept four of the eight sets of back-to-back games it has played this season, and it is 9-3-4 overall in those games. The Capitals have nine sets of back-to-back games remaining over their last 38 games of the season.
FAMILIAR SPOT – With a 22-16-6 mark on the season, the Caps are at 50 points through 44 games. That’s exactly where they were at the same spot last season when they owned a 24-18-2 record through 44 games.
CLOSE SHAVES – Friday night’s victory was the Caps’ 13th win in a one-goal game (13-5-6) this season. The Capitals are tied for third in the NHL in one-goal victories, and they have matched their total of one-goal triumphs from the lockout-abbreviated season of 2012-13 (13-7-3).
FRIDAY NIGHT AT THE FIGHTS – Toronto leads the NHL with 32 fighting majors; two more than the Philadelphia Flyers. The Capitals have had 25 fighting majors this season, tied with the Buffalo Sabres for fifth in the league.
A dozen different Leafs have dropped the mitts this season while Washington has had nine different players with fighting majors in 2013-14.
Wilson leads the Caps with nine fighting majors, tied for third in the NHL and two behind league leader Tom Sestito of the Vancouver Canucks.
DOWN ON THE FARM – The AHL Hershey Bears were on the road on Friday, visiting the Senators in Binghamton. The Bears dropped a 4-2 decision to the Baby Sens.
Brandon Segal scored twice and Nicolas Deschamps assisted on both tallies. David Leggio made 32 saves in a losing effort for Hershey.
Hershey’s busy weekend continues on Saturday when it hosts Springfield, the team with the best record in the AHL. The Bears travel to Albany on Sunday afternoon to play their third game in three days.
The 15-13-3-3 Bears are in 10th place in the AHL’s Eastern Conference standings, three points shy of St. John’s for eighth place.
Down a level, the ECHL Reading Royals defeated the Jackals in Elmira by a 4-1 count on Friday. Aaron Gens, Julien Cayer, Domenic Monardo and Ethan Cox scored the game’s first four goals to stake the visiting Royals to a 4-0 lead.
Brandon Anderson made 18 saves to earn the win in the Reading crease, and he came within 3:37 of recording a shutout.
The 17-12-1-0 Royals are now just a point behind Wheeling for the top spot in the ECHL’s Atlantic Division.
The Royals will remain in Elmira to take on the Jackals again on Saturday and the two teams will head to Reading on Sunday to face one another for the third time in as many games.
BY THE NUMBERS – John Carlson’s 24:32 workload was tops among all Washington skaters … Alzner’s four blocked shots were tops among all Caps … Ovechkin led the Caps with five shots on net and 11 shot attempts … Carl Gunnarsson paced the Leafs with six blocked shots in the game.