January 22 vs. Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM
Washington Capitals (26-14-8)
Toronto Maple Leafs (19-22-5)
Washington concludes its longest road trip of the season to date on Saturday when it visits the Maple Leafs in Toronto for a Hockey Night in Canada Contest. The Caps opened the trip with a 3-2 overtime loss to the Flyers in Philadelphia on Tuesday before taking a 2-1 decision from the Islanders in New York on Thursday.
The victory over the Islanders lifted Washington’s road record on the season to 10-9-3.
Goaltender Braden Holtby – recalled from AHL Hershey the day before – made 24 stops to earn his third win of the season in the win over the Fishermen. Nicklas Backstrom supplied the game-winning goal with his first tally since Dec. 1, a span of 21 games.
“It was definitely nice,” says Holtby of the win. “It’s great for those guys to break out. For Nicky, it was great to see him get that goal. We really focused on defensive play all game, and I didn’t really have to make any big saves so it was a good game.”
Backstrom’s goal was his 12th of the season. He also set up Jason Chimera’s first-period goal to notch his first multiple-point game since Dec. 6.
“I’ve been waiting a long time for that,” says a relieved Backstrom. “It felt good, absolutely. It was a little bit frustrating when you haven’t been scoring in 20 games. It feels good to score a goal. I almost forgot how it was to score a goal.”
For the first time in nine games, the Capitals took an early lead and maintained it into the game’s first intermission. They added to the lead with Backstrom’s goal in the second, and Holtby made it stand up. It was a refreshing change from the Capitals’ recent rut of falling behind and storming back to win, gain a point, or not.
“Everyone is still tired,” says Chimera, “but they’re not as tired as coming back. You have to expend a lot of effort coming back. We sat back a little more than we should have, but we didn’t give them too much in the third period. They got a few power plays that were really their only opportunities. We played a pretty good, solid game and they’re a team that’s playing well so it was a good win for us.”
The Capitals blocked 20 New York shots on the night, including six while the Isles were on the power play and nine in the third period.
Focusing on defense has done the Capitals a lot of good. Since suffering an embarrassing 7-0 setback at the hands of the Rangers in New York on Dec. 12, Washington has tightened up significantly in its own end. The Caps have allowed just 32 goals in 16 games since, posting an 8-3-5 record in the process. Washington goalies have combined for a 1.93 GAA and a .936 save pct. in the team's last 16 games.
Washington is still in the midst of a prolonged offensive dry spell, having scored more than three goals just once in its last 19 games and not at all in its last dozen contests. The Caps are just 9-for-81 (11.1%) on the power play in their last 24 games, and they’ve been held to fewer than 30 shots on goal in five straight.
“We’re not scoring,” says Boudreau, “so we better be aware of the defensive end because we’re only averaging about two goals a game for the last 20.
“If you’re a goal-scorer, you may be in a slump but all of a sudden it just doesn’t fade away. So eventually, they will start scoring again, and at the rate that they’re capable of [scoring]. So if they learn and they know how to play defense, and then they get the balance with the offense I think our team will be in good shape come in a couple months.”
With a goals against average beneath 2.00 over the last 16 games and the league’s ninth-ranked defense, the Caps have transformed themselves into a more defensive-minded club.
“If we all 20 guys are working together hard and moving the puck like we did tonight,” said Backstrom after the Islanders’ game, “we’re going to be fine. And we had chances, too. We’re just not going to be like we were last year, high-scoring, because we’re thinking more about the defensive [part of the] game.”
With three games remaining before the NHL’s All-Star break, the Caps are seeking to piece together a modest winning streak. Their 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Jan. 1 Winter Classic gave them a three-game spree, but they haven’t won consecutive contests since.
Semyon Varlamov served as Holtby's back-up in Thursday's game. Varlamov is expected to be ready to go against Toronto on Saturday and is the likely starter if he is physically ready to play.
The Leafs are coming off a schizophrenic pair of back-to-back contests. They dropped an ugly 7-0 road decision to the Rangers in New York on Wednesday before returning home to take down the Ducks by a 5-2 count at Air Canada Centre on Thursday.
Twice this season Toronto has rebounded from third-period deficits to take points against the Capitals in Washington. The Leafs entered a Nov. 3 game down 3-1 going into the third, but they rallied to take a 4-3 lead before ultimately falling 5-4 in the shootout.
Just over a month later, Washington took a 4-1 lead into the third period against the Leafs. Again, Toronto tallied three times in the third and forced overtime. This time, it was the Leafs that came away with the 5-4 shootout decision. That Dec. 6 loss came in the midst of Washington’s eight-game winless streak.
Toronto’s already dim postseason hopes are fading fast. The Leafs currently reside in 12th place in the Eastern Conference, 11 points in back of eighth-place Atlanta. The Maple Leafs would likely need to accumulate somewhere in the area of 50 points over their final 36 games and would need to leapfrog four other clubs in order to land the franchise’s first post-lockout playoff berth.
Since the calendar turned to 2011, the Maple Leafs are 6-3-1. Although he Leafs are 25th in the league with an average of 2.52 goals per game, Toronto has five players with a dozen or more goals this season.