The Leafs traveled to Washington D.C. tonight to take on Alex Ovechkin and his merry band of second-round washouts. The Leafs were looking for their sixth straight win, Washington for their third. This was also the beginning of the famous “dad” road trip, where the fathers of the Leafs’ players travel with the team.
The game had a very mild controversy around it, as Caps starting goalie Brayden Holtby indicated he was embarrassed by the Caps 4-2 loss to the Leafs earlier in the season, given the Leafs are a young and relatively inexperienced team.
Mike Babcock, as usual, deployed Nazem Kadri’s line against the top opposing line, in this case the Ovechkin-Backstrom-Oshie trio. The first exchange in this regard was not promising, as the Ovi line ran around the Leafs’ zone for thirty seconds and Nikita Zaitsev took a hooking penalty trying to obstruct Ovechkin in front of the net. This boded ill.
The Capitals PP struck rapidly, as Dmitri Orlov rifled a puck into the slot and off Justin Williams’ skate into the net. The Leafs were down 1-0 75 seconds into the game, which made this one of those apparent character tests that occur any time a young team encounters some kind of adversity. [pause for dramatic foreshadowing]
The Leafs spent the first five minutes looking like a team that hadn’t played a good opponent in a while. It wasn’t until a power play—possibly a makeup call—that the Leafs showed any life. Happily, the Leafs unit of Marner, Kadri and JVR combined to score a hard-fought goal—Marner carried the puck in, and Kadri and JVR whacked at it point-blank. The goal went to Naz, and we were tied 1-1.
The goal seemed to help the Leafs get their legs under them again, although the Ovechkin line refused to be contained. The Matthews line charged in on an odd-man rush, and Hyman hit Brown with a pass that Brown absolutely sniped. Matthews is obviously the king on that line (and drew a second assist on the goal), but the three of them have been succeeding as a unit. 2-1 Leafs.
Justin Williams took a nasty penalty cross-checking Mitch Marner, and JVR had a heartbreaking miss on a mostly empty net. Unfortunately, Williams got a pass coming out of the box and charged in. Rielly did his best to close Williams off, but Williams managed to get the puck to T.J. Oshie, whom Tyler Bozak ineptly defended. Oshie cut through the slot and roofed the puck to tie the game 2-2.
The goal-scoring wasn’t done for the period, though. Connor Carrick fired a pass that broke his stick, but drove the puck to the slot, where enormous man-mountain Frederic Gauthier buried a freebie.
Goat goals are more fun than ordinary goals. I can’t explain it. They just are. 3-2 Leafs.
The Leafs had a brutal experience at 5v5 this period. Everyone was varying degrees of underwater in shot attempts except Connor Carrick (50%). If you’d like to be optimistic, the Leafs played the Caps even in the middle ten minutes between their two powerplays, and were only especially bad at the beginning and the end. But hoo boy. Anyway, disregarding the Corsis, Matthews and co. looked dangerous, Kadri and friends looked shellshocked. The Leafs were lucky to be up.
Caps coach Trotz had apparently seen enough of Holtby for the evening, and replaced him with Phillip Grubauer to start the second. At press time we did not know whether Holtby found this to be embarrassing.
Anyway, Evgeni Kuznetsov opened the period by taking a high sticking penalty on Zach Hyman. The Leafs threatened but did not score, although hot-hand sniper Connor Brown showed off his shot again.
In an awkward play, Alex Ovechkin shoved Rielly into Andersen and spun the Leaf goalie around. Andersen was upset and Leaf fans were terrified (but it correctly wasn’t a call on Ovi.)
A superb shift where Gardiner backed the Matthews line ended frustratingly when Matthews took a rare tripping penalty for a poke with his stick blade. The Leafs survived a close call at the tail end of it as Andersen made a great post-to-post save.
Alex Ovechkin took a tripping penalty of his own as the penalty parade continued. Auston Matthews proceeded to do ridiculous, NHL 17 shit to set up Leo Komarov. Please watch this goal. If you only watch one of the goals tonight, watch this one. 4-2 Leafs.
Komarov also kindly tapped Orpik on the shoulder in tribute to his failed effort to stop Komarov from scoring. Orpik surprisingly failed to appreciate the gesture’s obviously charitable intent, and shoved Koma in annoyance.
The best goal celebration pic.twitter.com/vjpmxAWouo— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) January 4, 2017
The Capitals seemed to grow frustrated at being down two goals, and Kadri’s expert trolling finally wore at the temper of Alex Ovechkin enough to start a brawl and a scrum. The exchange led to both Backstrom and Ovi taking penalties against only one for the Leafs (Kadri), giving the Leafs a chance for their third powerplay goal of the night. The Leafs failed to convert this time, and the messy, hilarious second period drew to a close.
Despite playing the whole period with the lead, the Leafs won the EV possession battle, with Gardiner and Carrick (as usual) leading the way, followed by the Matthews line. Nazem Kadri’s line fared poorly, but did succeed in the all-important goal of pissing off the Capitals. (These 5v5 samples are also very small, because so much of the game was on the PP.) The game was a sloppy, penalty-filled mess, although it wasn’t especially violent—it was more irritable and tightly-called than anything. The Leafs earned their goals, but were lucky not to have more of them against. I swear I wrote that last line before the third started.
The Leafs had a lead in the third, so you know what that means. Marcus Johansson fired a puck to a wide-open Kuznetsov, who fired a laser shot from the slot. 4-3.
The tying goal followed shortly thereafter. Matt Niskanen faked a shot and then hit an advancing Dmitri Orlov for a one-timer. No one appeared to notice Orlov, and so his slapshot went clean in. 4-4.
Following the Leafs this season has made me something of a blown-lead connoisseur. There are the unlucky stretches, the sudden collapses, and the overdue goals against. This was the third type; the Leafs were lucky to be up two goals, and while as is their custom Toronto had to throw a lead away, they deserved to be scored on sooner or later.
The Caps took yet another penalty, and the Leafs failed to generate much on it. Just when all seemed lost, though...
5-4 Leafs. The probably-not-on-purpose touch play by JVR is key, although obviously it’s also luck, and it’s most of all Mitch Marner.
Did you think it was over? Of course it wasn’t over. The Caps’ Evgeni Kuznetsov, having a banner night, rushed in and threw the puck behind Andersen out front to John Carlson, who buried it. 5-5. Jesus help me.
Despite terrible defensive efforts by both teams, the period ended without further scoring, and we went to OT.
The Leafs never touched the puck. Jay Beagle won the faceoff and then shuffled out for Ovechkin. Carlson caught the puck on the side boards and threw a set-up pass past Kadri through the slot to Ovi. Ovechkin scored an Ovechkin goal on a one-timer. No chance for Andersen.
-This was very possibly the worst defensive performance of the season. The Leafs are a bad defensive team most nights, and they had an abject 7-0 loss to Los Angeles, so this is a high (low?) bar. But I honestly believe this to be true.
-No, seriously, we need to emphasize this. The Leafs allowed a spectacular number of a) odd-man rushes and b) lateral passes in the d-zone to guys who were wide open. They were doing this early in the year—most prominently in the infamous Winnipeg game, where they coughed up an even bigger lead—and while they seemed to have mitigated the problem slightly in December, tonight was an appalling performance. It admittedly came against a high-octane offensive team, but this was inexcusably bad.
-The Kadri line got killed. Kadri at least had a PP goal to hang his night on and he and Koma were at their trolling best, but they were totally ineffective defensively.
-Rielly and Zaitsev, on a related note, had a terrible day at the racetrack and were on for chance after chance after chance against. In both Rielly and Kadri’s cases, this is partly because they were deployed to shut down the Alex Ovechkin line. Tonight they failed unequivocally.
-Nobody was good defensively except maybe Gardiner-Carrick (the only Leafs defenders to finish with positive Corsi numbers), but the Matthews line and the Bozak line at least produced some offence to try and compensate. Matthews’ setup of the Komarov goal will probably be one of the top ten assists of the season, it’s that good.
-Frederik Andersen finished with a save percentage of .793. That does him no justice; it takes an unforgiving eye to fault him on pretty much any of the six goals against. But it does show that when Freddie isn’t superhuman, the Leafs bleed.
-“I didn’t think we were very good tonight,” Mike Babcock said after the game. “We were all in it together, right from the goal to the D to the forwards, we were not very good.” The Leafs, truth be told, were due to get whacked for their play, where they count on their superlative offensive talent to outweigh their sloppy defence. Tonight the lesson came.
-Of course, partly the Leafs looked so bad because they were playing a dominant offensive team. The Capitals’ top line of Ovechkin-Backstrom-Oshie ran the Leafs over all night, as did the Niskanen-Orlov pairing. Justin Williams and Evgeni Kuznetsov did essentially whatever they wanted in the Leafs’ zone. To my eye test, John Carlson was moving the puck very skillfully, though his possession numbers were less gaudy than some on the Caps.
-As Mike Babcock put it, they played badly on the road and got a point. As frustrating as this game was, that’s probably more than the Leafs deserved. Onward and upward.