December 9 vs. Toronto Maple Leafs at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 1500AM, XM and Caps Radio Network Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m., Two-Man Advantage at 2 p.m., John Walton’s one-on-one audio with Dale Hunter at 5 p.m., all on washingtoncaps.com.
Toronto Maple Leafs (15-10-3)
Washington Capitals (14-12-1)
Twenty days ago, the Caps took a 7-1 trouncing from Toronto at Air Canada Centre. The Maple Leafs were missing several regulars from their lineup that night, but they still tallied twice in the first and four times in the second period to win going away.
On Friday night at Verizon Center, the two teams meet again. This time, the Caps have a new face behind their bench.
Dale Hunter’s Caps have posted a 2-3 mark in his first five games as the team’s bench boss, with all three of those losses coming by a single goal. Most recently, the Caps authored a 5-3 win over the Senators in Ottawa on Wednesday night to give Hunter his first win as the team’s bench boss.
That win ended a five-game road losing streak, Washington’s longest in nearly five years.
Washington fell into a 5-1 hole in Florida on Monday in the first game of the two-game trip, but rallied for three goals in the final 20 minutes and 20 seconds to make the score a respectable 5-4 at game’s end.
The Caps played as well as they’ve played for 60 minutes since Hunter took over in Wednesday’s game at Ottawa, and Caps center Jeff Halpern – who had a goal and an assist in Wednesday’s win over the Senators – believes the team’s strong third-period showing in Monday’s loss at Florida carried over into the victory at Ottawa.
“Unfortunately we lost the edge we had at the beginning of the season with our [7-0] start,” says Halpern. “The games feel like crunch time every game out there. [In] Florida, as bad as our penalty kill was in giving up those goals, I thought we at least came back and grabbed some momentum in that third period and it carried over into [Wednesday’s] game. I think now our issue is making sure we come back consistently and get those efforts.”
Washington came out hard in the first, but had nothing to show for a decided advantage in shots, chances, puck possession and territorial advantage after 20 minutes. The Caps went up 1-0 on Halpern’s goal early in the second period, but Ottawa wrested momentum from Washington and took a 2-1 lead into the game’s final frame.
“You could see the whole game we were getting chances,” says Caps goaltender Tomas Vokoun. “We just weren’t able to bury them. I think when we play like that, eventually it’s going to turn around. We’ve got so much skill and guys are going to score goals.”
Although the Caps kept peppering Sens goaltender Craig Anderson with shots at the start of the third, he kept making the saves. It looked like Vokoun might end up on the short end of a 2-1 count for the third straight game, and Vokoun had to make a stellar breakaway stop on the lethal Milan Michalek five minutes into the third just to keep it close.
“It was 2-1,” says Vokoun, “Obviously it’s a big save for the team. We came back down and scored a couple of quick goals to get the lead. It was a good game. It’s a team we probably should beat, but we were in a fragile state of mind, everybody here. We lost some games, so it’s a big win for us on the road against a team that felt like they had a chance to beat us.”
Washington’s 7-0 start to the season is a distant memory; the Capitals were in 11th place in the Eastern Conference standings going into Wednesday’s game. Since their swift start, the Caps have won consecutive games twice, but have yet to put together a run as modest at three straight.
“One big win, you win a couple games in a row and you go on a streak,” notes Vokoun. “Just like when you’re on the way down and you’re digging a deeper and deeper hole.
“We’re not in a good spot in the standings. We don’t have the luxury of relaxing; you never do. You saw it. We were 7-0 and how quickly things turned to go the wrong way. You can never relax in this league and we know that. And now we don’t have that cushion to rely on, so every game is going to be a hard battle. We lost some games, and teams feel a lot more confident against us than they maybe did a month ago. Everybody who comes here feels like they have a chance to win the game. It’s going to be that much harder for us. We’ve got to get that feeling when they come to our rink that it’s really going to be tough for them to win.”
The Leafs had been struggling until Washington came to town for that Nov. 20 game, but Toronto has gone 5-3-1 since, including that 7-1 win over the Capitals.
Toronto has won four of its last five road games and is in second place in the NHL’s Northeast Division, two points behind the front-running Boston Bruins.
Sophomore netminder James Reimer is back on Toronto’s active roster. After starting the season 4-1-2 in his first eight starts, Reimer had been sidelined for more than a month with an ailment the team termed as “whiplash.”
Since returning, Reimer has gone 0-1-1 in his two starts while allowing seven goals on 56 shots for an .875 save pct.
Jonas Gustavsson was in goal for last month’s 7-1 win over the Capitals; he made 40 saves to earn the win that night.
The Leafs have given up 20 goals in their last six games, going 3-2-1 during that stretch.
The Maple Leafs’ power play has been humming along with the best of them lately. In its last dozen games, Toronto is 12-for-35 (34.3%) with the extra man. The Leafs lit up the Caps for three power play goals on five opportunities in Toronto on Nov. 20.