What can’t Knuble do? (Photo credit: Graig Abel)
In their first game of the final back-to-back of the season, the Capitals found themselves in Air Canada Centre to face the surging Toronto Maple Leafs. Since the All-Star break, the Leafs have gone a ridiculous and improbable 18-7-5, riding mid-season call-up James Reimer’s (Oops, sorry!) Optimus Reim‘s incredible goaltending back into playoff contention.
Unfortunately for the Leafs, their chances of still making the playoffs were about as likely as Jason Chimera having a 50 goal season: less than one percent. To stave off mathematical elimination for one more night, they had to have either a regulation or overtime win against DC and a loss from Buffalo.
“They have to have every point,” winger Brooks Laich explained to the media after the Capitals pre-game skate. “They have to have every point in regulation the next three games and then hope for the best. This is an elimination game for the Leafs and they’re going to show us their absolute best.
Toronto certainly came out hard, as Nikolai Kulemin tallied the game’s first goal — his 30th of the year — 5:37 into the first period on the power play. After the Leafs brought the puck up the ice with speed, Kulemin cut to the middle of the circles, used Karl Alzner and John Erskine as a screen and flicked a wrist-shot past a helpless Michal Neuvirth. Alex Ovechkin responded 6:49 later with his 300th career goal, blasting a power-play one-timer from inside the left circle past an overpowered Reimer.
Joffrey Lupul regained the Leafs lead in the second period, slipping past Jeff Schultz on a two on two rush and knocking home a brilliant pass from everyone’s favorite last pick in the All-Star Fantasy Draft, Phil Kessel. John Erskine — yes, John Erskine — then answered Lupul’s tally midway through the period, misfiring on a thigh-high shot from the point by nearly five feet. Lucky for Big John, it ricocheted off of Luke Schenn’s rump and into the back of the net. 2-2.
That score held up until the end of regulation. But by then, the Leafs playoff hopes had been dashed as Buffalo defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning, 4-2. The Sabres victory also ironically clinched the Capitals fourth straight Southeast Division crown.
Neither team managed to score in overtime or the first three rounds of the shootout. So Bruce Boudreau turned to 38-year old Mike Knuble in the bottom of the fourth.
“I was going down the list oldest to youngest and I had Arnott up and then I looked down, I said, ‘Knuble’s older,’ so I went with him,” Boudreau explained. “There’s no science or anything involved in that tonight.”
Kanoobs went on to beat Reimer high and glove side, prompting a raucous celebration at their end of the ice with Neuvy. Caps beat Leafs, 3-2 (SO)!!
- With tonight’s win and Philadelphia’s loss, the Capitals moved into sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference. If the playoffs started today, the Capitals would be matched up against the New York Rangers in the first round.
- In their last nine games that have gone to overtime, the Capitals have a record of 8-0-1.
- For those who missed it earlier today, Alex Semin did not travel with the team and stayed at home in Washington to rest an unspecified (wrist, wrist, wrist) injury. Via Katie Carrera: “He could play if we wanted him to play today,” Boudreau said. “I hope he’s back tomorrow but if he’s not…. hopefully it will be Saturday. If it’s not, then hopefully it will be the first game of the playoffs.” Coincidentally, the Capitals were not whistled for any stick infractions during the game.
- Rogers Sportsnet revealed during their telecast that Toronto was willing to pull their goalie in the final minutes of overtime because Buffalo held a tie-breaker over them, making a shootout victory worthless. Had there been an empty net goal in OT, it would have been only the fourth time in the modern era (1968 – 2011) that it’s happened. #fancystats
- While the Capitals held a 41-21 advantage in shots, the teams were almost even in regards to scoring chances, with Washington out-chancing Toronto, 22-17.
- The Capitals accrued five chances on the power play tonight, the most they’ve racheted up in a game since they blew out Edmonton 5-0 on March 10th (eight chances, two power play goals).
- Alex Ovechkin‘s 300th career goal was nice. But I was more impressed by the tenaciousness he exhibited throughout the entire game and how hard he competed. Ovi went through three sticks in the first period alone, broke Tyler Bozak’s ankles (figuratively speaking) with a move in the offensive zone and attempted a mind-bending 17 shots over the course of the entire game. Ovechkin also had his customary four hits. The only troubling number I saw in the final box score was Ovechkin’s TOI stat. The Russian Machine played the most minutes of all Capitals fowards (23:36).
- Ovechkin now has 23 goals in 23 career games against the Leafs.
- Despite being the most ineffective defenseman on the ice and looking like like he was skating in mud, Jeff Schultz logged heavy minutes, receiving 26 plus minutes from Bruce Boudreau. Sarge was cleanly beaten to the net by Toronto players on three different occassions, one of which led directly to Joffrey Lupul’s second period goal. If we examine his scoring chances numbers, Mr. Nasty’s awful night is even more evident. Schultz was on the ice for nine chances against — or almost half of Toronto’s chances on the night.
- Nicklas Backstrom was nine of 22 in the faceoff dot (41%) and finished a minus-one on the night. Backstrom has also gone 19 straight scoring chances without a goal. So basically, he’s due.
- Brooks Laich, Jason Chimera and Jason Arnott were each on the ice for only one even strength scoring chance apiece. However, Laich was on the ice for all five power play chances the Capitals generated and also drew a powerplay by himself after going hard to the net in the second period.
- Eric Fehr, Marcus Johansson and Marco Sturm were each on the ice for nine scoring chances for.
- The Leafs’ James Reimer was the hard luck loser tonight. He had several ten belle stops, most notably his diving two-armed save on Marcus Johansson from point-blank range.
- Okay, now I’m starting to see what Leafs fans are getting so excited about. Reimer, who is in the top five of all NHL goalies with 20 wins since the All-Star Break, also has some pretty sweet nicknames such as The Reiminister of Defense. My favorite? The statue. I’ll let Wikipedia explain: “[This nickname] resulted from head coach Wilson’s attempts to suppress the hype around the rookie goalie only a short time into his NHL career, saying “There’s all this [attention] around here, a guy wins a game and we’re ready to build a statue for him.” Awesome.
- Finally, one worrisome stat heading into the playoffs? The Capitals have given up a powerplay goal to their opponents in three of their last four games.
Tonight, the Capitals played an opponent who was in playoffs mode for 59:10 of the game. Tomorrow, they will face a team who was eliminated from the the big dance several weeks ago and has nothing to play for except for pride. If the Capitals can somehow win out Wednesday and Saturday against the Panthers, they will be the Eastern Conference’s number one seed, something that six weeks ago seemed very unlikely. Oh, the wonders of net crashing and a dedication to defense!
See you back here tomorrow night!
Additional reporting by Neil Greenberg.