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Coming off of an inspired 4-3 come from behind win against the Tampa Bay Lightning last night the Capitals did it again, hosting a struggling (and similarly tired) Toronto Maple Leafs team winless since the Winter Classic on January 1st. Washington and Toronto would bring energy and intensity, a 3-2 Capitals victory the end result of sixty minutes of tough, nail-biting hockey. Michal Neuvirth would make his return to the lineup and keep the crease tidy with 31 saves - Welcome back Neuvy.
The goal scoring would start with Alex Ovechkin and end with Joel Ward's 13th of the season, a third period goal coming with the Maple Leafs' David Clarkson stepping out of the penalty box but unable to get in on the defensive coverage. Nicklas Backstrom would provide the other Capitals tally and Washington has now picked up four points in two nights, their back-to-back victories tying them with the Philadelphia Flyers for second in the Metropolitan Division.
Ten more notes on the game:
- Neuvirth made his first start since November 22nd (a 3-2 regulation loss at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens) having suffered a lower body injury when he stepped on a puck during the next pre-game skate. The Czech stalwart earned his first victory in over two months, an early third period stop on Mason Raymond alone in the slot his crowning achievement - keeping the home team within striking distance and allowing them to escape with two points.
- The scoring would start with Ovechkin’s 32nd of the year, a calm and confident Mikhail Grabovski feeding Alex in the slot on the Russian's strong side. A quick snapshot to the nearside corner beat Jonathan Bernier blocker side and snapped the scoreless game.
- James van Riemsdyk would respond for the Maple Leafs, taking a sharp angled shot from Phil Kessel skating in on the half wall and deflecting it over Neuvirth’s glove hand. The goal would come less than three minutes after Ovechkin’s tally and late on a Toronto man advantage because of a Grabovski minor.
- The second period was sparked by fights between Tom Wilson and Carter Ashton, the two spirited youths getting the Verizon Center faithful back into the game before John Erskine and Colton Orr blew the roof off of the building. A stiff right hand from Erskine sat Orr on his bum as everyone else stood to applaud Washington’s enforcer.
- Before Erskine's bout he and Dion Phaneuf got tangled up in the second period, Washington's defenseman stalking the Leafs' Captain after a whistle and popping him with two good straight shots (and one to linesman Mark Shewchyk for good measure). An extra minor penalty would be assessed to Big John, the Capitals' veteran again failing to benefit his team while on the ice. Does his second period KO exonerate Erskine's earlier mistake?, this guy says no.
- Kessel would angle a puck up and off of Karl Alzner's stick, the biscuit deflecting past Neuvirth's left ear on the quick change of direction. A powerful release, along with a fair bit of luck, would be all Kessel needed for his 21st and it gave the Maple Leafs their first lead of the game.
- The luck would bounce the Capitals' way less than four minutes later, Backstrom spinning a wrist shot that would deflect in off of Nikolai Kulemin's skates. If there was ever evidence for always putting rubber into the crease, this was it.
- Ward would spell the difference for the home team, his quick release from the slot care of a deft pass from Marcus Johansson beat Bernier between the legs and gave the Capitals a lead they would not relinquish. With only eight minutes left in the game it would be Neuvirth closing out the Canadians and sending them home pointless.
- Grabovski mustered only two shots in his first meeting against the Coach and team that bought him out in the summer of 2013 but he was much more noticeable the second time around, posting a pivotal primary assist in the second period and playing an engaged and exciting game in 17:53 of ice time.
- Brooks Laich had another pedestrian outing, the Assistant still goalless since returning to the lineup on December 23rd after another groin issue flared up and kept him out for 11 games. He has only registered a single assist in the five games he has suited up since returning to good health. Does anyone believe that his heart and soul is much of an upgrade over healthy scratch Martin Erat?
A big win on home ice helps Washington continue the good momentum they built in Tampa Bay Thursday night. The team currently sits in playoff positioning in the Metropolitan Division, ahead of both Eastern Conference Wildcard teams (currently the New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings). The Capitals have 50 points in the crowded Metropolitan but a few more games following in the mold of tonight's performance will give Washington a good chance to separate themselves from the pack.
The Capitals return to Verizon Center ice on Sunday afternoon at 3PM to host the Buffalo Sabres, Ted Nolan's group resting since their shootout loss to the Florida Panthers on Thursday night. Washington will need their legs early to keep the energetic Sabres at bay during the matinee, but all they will need to do is be able to build off of tonight's compete level.