The Leafs managed to score the first goal of the game for only the second time this season, as Daniel Winnik darted into the Washington Capitals' zone alone and snapped a shot short side on Braden Holtby that Holtby would definitely want back. Holtby wasn't screened, the puck wasn't tipped, it came from far out, and it just flat out beat him. Regardless, the Leafs were certainly glad to have a goal any way they could get one.
The Caps pushed back quickly, forcing James Reimer to make a terrific save moving laterally across the crease. Sure, the one-timed shot went short side instead of far side, but it was exactly the kind of stop the Leafs needed, not to mention how much Reimer's confidence is likely to have needed it.
Unfortunately, on the same play as Reimer's big save, Lady Luck visited the Leafs again, causing Winnik, the Leafs' goalscorer to fall in an awkward way ("THAT'S what you get for scoring the first goal!"). It appeared on the replay that Winnik's left knee buckled, and he was in obvious pain before being lead from the ice.
Nazem Kadri picked up where he left off with Lady Luck, ringing one off the post with 10:42 left in the first, and then being forced to serve a too-many-men call moments later. As he sprang from the box he created another chance to no avail. Certainly, this had the makings of another tough one for Kadri from the get-go.
The disappointment is becoming increasingly visible on Kadri's face as his shots keep bouncing in odd directions and off of posts and it's hard to blame him. He's doing everything right, and getting none of the results.
With 5 minutes left in the period, Alexander Ovechkin blasted a shot through Reimer, but it dribbled out the other side of him and off the outside of the net. Reimer and the Leafs played a solid first period, and finally, after once again putting in the work, also walked away with a lead.
One improvement in the Leafs' game that was on full display in the first period is their short passing in their own zone. No longer is the team panicking and blindly throwing pucks up the boards, praying that a defenceman misplays a puck or for wingers to make difficult plays all game. Babcock has utterly transformed the Leafs' breakout, and it means that they are spending a lot less time in their own zone. Couple this with a more organized forecheck (and the fact that the Leafs can break out with more than one man at a time) and the Leafs also manage to spend more time in the offensive zone.
Kadri took a penalty for interference 4:12 into the second period, and the Leafs' penalty kill eventually caved in to the Caps' pressure, as Ovechkin tied Sergei Federov's record for most NHL goals by a Russian player. Ovechkin came down towards the net on the weak side totally uncovered, picked up a puck that caromed off a Leafs' defender, leaving Reimer with no chance, and roofed it in the open side.
The remainder of the second period (that is to say, most of it) was a snooze-fest, with the Leafs and Caps trading a couple more power plays and finishing the frame with the shots tied 17-17 and the score knotted at one. This signalled a good game from Reimer up to that point, but also that Washington's high-octane offence did not get much room in the neutral zone. It also, of course, was absolutely par for the course for the Leafs' toothless offence. Ho hum.
It took until halfway through the third period for the next goal to be scored, when the Leafs' power play wound up cashing in, as Joffrey Lupul tipped a Morgan Rielly pass, and that hit the post, but James van Riemsdyk cashed in on the rebound.
The Leafs got themselves into penalty trouble later on in the period as the team gave up a 5-on-3 on penalties to Leo Komarov and then Matt Hunwick, but the team killed it off very efficiently. In fact, it is worth noting that a number of young players including Byron Froese, Scott Harrington, and Morgan Rielly were put out on the ice for such important moments, and that they did well.
The Capitals' offensive zone pressure continued unabated when the penalties were over, with the Leafs unable to get a whistle until Ovechkin appeared to get his second (record setting) goal of the game. Fortunately, the war room in Toronto decided that Reimer had been bumped, and the goal was waived on a coach's challenge. Under the rules of last year's NHL, this goal would almost certainly have counted, but Babcock and the Leafs were, of course, happy to use the new rule to their advantage.
For the third time in as many games, the Leafs gave up a heartbreaking goal that changed the outcome of the game. With just 1.7 seconds remaining in the third, a bouncing puck hit Niklas Backstrom in the chest on the far side of the net, and he was able to lift a shot under the glove of a sprawling Reimer to tie the game at 2 and send it to overtime. No blame could reasonably be placed on Reimer.
Overtime provided the expected number of wild odd-man rushes, but in the end, both goalies were equal to the task, and the game headed to a shootout.
In the shootout the Caps hit the post twice in their first three attempts and the Leafs were turned away each time, as Ovechkin scored on the 4th attempt to seal the comeback for Washington. Kadri had a chance to even the score after Ovechkin scored, but he was stopped on a short-side deke by Holtby and the post.
This was a tough loss in that the Leafs played well enough to deserve a win, managed to score first for the first time this season, and were well-supported by a strong game from Reimer. Once again, the Leafs' offence was unequal to that of their opponent, and the team went down swinging.
A few notes on individual performances:
- Kadri again lead the team in shots with 8 (!) and no other Leaf had more than 2. The craziest part is that this doesn't even count the post he hit in the first period. He was also the Leafs' top player tonight in terms of Corsi +/-.
- Komarov and JvR also had good games, once again. They were dangerous at 5v5, on the power play (JvR had a goal), and in overtime. I probably would have let JvR have a crack at one of the shootout attempts, but putting out Bozak and Lupul wasn't a bad decision, either.
- Brad Boyes played only 7:43 in the entire game. Why? He's looked good to me.
- Nick Spaling played over 20 minutes of hockey. Doesn't that seem like too much? This is flashes of Jay McClement all over again, but I'll give Babcock a pass for a while on this one. The Leafs aren't finished making roster moves.
- Dion Phaneuf lead the team in ice time with 26:15. He had a good game, though since Clark's article about his propensity to take penalties, I can't help but notice his skating looks like it has dropped off a lot.
- Shawn Matthias' skating is a great fit for the Leafs' penalty kill. He can be dangerous.
- James Reimer played a hell of a game. Jonathan Bernier should have his work cut out for him when he returns from injury.