With the Toronto Maple Leafs visiting Verizon Center on Tuesday night, the Caps not only got to open "Canada Week-Plus" (they'll next face Ottawa, Montreal, Winnipeg and then Ottawa again) with another measuring stick game against a playoff-bound club, but they also had the opportunity to test their mettle against a potential first-round opponent (albeit one that played a night earlier and had its backup goaltender in net). The Leafs would appear headed for the Conference's fifth-seed, but it's still possible that they fall to sixth, where they'd face the Southeast Division winner (despite quite possibly or even quite probably having more points... c'est la vie). The Caps, of course, have the inside track on that designation. In fact, Sports Club Stats pegged the odds of a Caps-Leafs first round series at about 8.2% as of this morning (which includes an extreme long-shot of a 2-versus-7 series opening in Toronto).
The game itself briefly worked its way up towards a playoff-like intensity, sparked by a questionable hit and a fitting response, but most of the air was let out of the Leafs' balloon during a three-goal second-period for the Caps en route to a 5-1 win.
Ten more notes on the game:
- For a Caps team that has struggled a bit in terms of puck possession and, especially recently, shot differential, these would be important points of emphasis... as they are every night. And, like they did on Saturday night, the Caps came out strong, firing eight of the game's first ten shots, out-shooting the Leafs 14-8 in the first and holding a plus-seven Corsi and Fenwick edge after one. A big key to those advantages? A 15-6 face-off advantage (against a decent face-off team) that included a 10-0 start and a 12-4 in-zone advantage.
- The Caps got on the board after a smart zone-entry by Mathieu Perreault eventually wound up on Jason Chimera's stick (via Eric Fehr) and was pushed back to the point for a Jack Hillen shot that deflected off of Nazem Kadri's twig and in. It was one of nine first-period shots on goal from Caps blueliners... including three from Karl Alzner (!) and four from Steven Oleksy. Obviously the Caps' coaching staff had seen something that made them think those shots would be there and worth taking.
- Less than a minute later, Jay McClement delievered a questionable hit that sent Nicklas Backstrom head-long into the boards at center-ice. Before the guys in stripes could blow their whistles or the call (and it would be the latter in this case), Alex Ovechkin was all over McClement in defense of his center, earning the only infraction that would be called on the play. The Caps would kill off the penalty - one of those they're happy to get the chance to kill off - and Chimera fought McClement the next time the latter took to the ice. When's the last time you saw a response like that to someone taking liberties with one of their own from this Caps team?
- Three minutes into the second, Ovechkin turned defenseman Jake Gardiner inside out and was only prevented from completing a highlight-reel finish by Nikolai Kulemin's hooking penalty. The Caps failed on that advantage, but moments after the penalty expired, Ovechkin fed Martin Erat a beauty of a slap-pass that the newest Cap deposited behind Ben Scrivens because he smartly had his stick on the ice. Smartin Erat. (Sorry.)
- Less than three minutes later, Troy Brouwer continued his super season by finishing off a feed from Erat on a 2-on-1. The goal was Brouwer's 17th of the shortened season... which is as many as he had two year ago in 79 games and one less than he had last year in 82. It also gave John Carlson his second helper of the night and gave Erat a multi-point game.
- The obvious question at that point was whether or not the Caps could take the lesson from Saturday night - that leads are easily lost if focus is - and learn from it. Once again, enter the captain, who would push the lead to four (after a noteworthy penalty kill) with a power-play goal, his 28th tally of the season. So to recap his night through 34 minutes, Ovechkin took a roughing penalty in reflexive defense of his pivot, essentially banked a shot off of a teammate's stick to extend the Caps' lead to 2-0, and hammered a nail in the Toronto coffin. Hart-caliber stuff, that.
- Back to the unlikely shooters on the blueline, Alzner had four shots on goal through two periods. He also had four shots on goal... over a 12-game stretch from February into March. He hadn't had four in a game since December, 2011 (and he'd later add a career-high fifth). Oleksy also had four SOGs through two. He had four over his last ten games. Odds of the two of them each having four shots through 40 minutes couldn't have been a whole lot higher than the odds of the Caps winning the game's first ten draws. Corsi ahoy!
- The Leafs got one back early in the third. Whatever.
- Marcus Johansson put to rest any lingering doubt (and flashbacks to Saturday) with a power-play goal with nine minutes left. Mike Green drew the primary helper on the goal, his second assist of the night and the fifth goal on the night on which a defenseman had a point for the Caps. Kudos to all six of 'em for an outstanding evening on the job.
- Braden Holtby came into Tuesday night's game having faced at least 30 shots on goal in each of his last six starts, nine of his last ten, 12 of his last 14, and 15 of his last 18. The Caps had allowed just 18 through the first two periods, but with that big lead, you'd have expected Toronto to have a relatively high shot total in the third. They got 12, so yet another 30+ night... but the way this one unfolded, no one will mind. As for Holtby, he was every bit as good as he had to be on this night and then some. Onward.
Back to the point at the top, tonight's result makes a Toronto series more likely. Of course, the Leafs wouldn't be a tired team playing its number two 'tender, so it's hard to really consider this game much of a preview at all. But it certainly gives the surging Caps even more confidence as they head off to Ottawa (for a more likely first-round opponent), and gets them that much closer to claiming the Southeast Division's last title.