It was a different Canadian city, but an all to familiar result, as the Washington Capitals blew yet another third period lead in their 3-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night.
Washington, now sitting dead-last in the Southeast Division and Eastern Conference, continued their lackluster play late and continued to show an absolute inability to stay mentally strong in the third. Plaguing them throughout the young season, Washington has rarely gotten on the board first and when they have, three times this season, they have yet to get a win. They sung the same tune against the former Eastern Conference bottom feeder Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Center.
Before going any further, netminder Michal Neuvirth should really be applauded for his effort on the evening. The fact Washington was even in the game was due in large part to his success between the pipes. Yes he gave up a soft goal, we will tackle that in a minute, but he still stopped 37 of the 40 shots he faced. Skaters were often in on him alone and they forced Neuvirth to make saves when his defense failed to bail him out.
In the first, before Neuvirth was hung out to dry, Joe Ward, Washington’s current leading scorer, got the Caps off on the right foot. Mike Ribeiro took the puck in the low right wing boards and passed in front of Toronto goalie James Reimer to Ward who was wide open down low. He quickly fired the puck short side to the wide-open cage to give the Caps an early lead.
From there, the train pretty much came off the rails.
To say the Caps found themselves in the penalty box a lot would really be an understatement. As a team they took five penalties, five, in the first period alone. The Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres combined to only take nine penalties total for the game on Thursday and that was with a fight in the first period. Ultimately the penalties would kill the Caps, as a lengthy four minute Toronto power-play – you can thank Jason Chimera and his unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for that one – allowed James van Riemsdyk to punch a rebound in to make it a 1-1 game.
Even though they were outplayed for most of the first, Washington got a big burst of energy to open the second with a goal to take the lead. On their own power-play, Alex Ovechkin was back on his familiar left wing side and picked up the puck in the high-slot. Instead of unleashing his traditional slapshot or wrist shot, he flicked the puck low and towards to the net and passed Reimer to give him his second goal of the year and the Caps a 2-1 lead.
Of course, Washington would go a whole two minutes before taking another penalty – again blame Chimera – and were on their heels. Toronto swarmed the net for the rest of the period aided by the benefit of back-to-back-to-back man-advantage opportunities, including Chimera’s. All the time on the kill kept Washington’s best players off the ice and allowed for the Leafs to tire out the defense.
The Caps held on heading into the third though, before the bludgeoning by Toronto may have become too much for Neuvirth and the defense. Toronto defenseman Michael Kostka launched a bomb from the blue line in a wide open shooting lane that squirted behind Neuvrith. The stagnant puck allowed Nikolai Kulemin to tap it in from his stomach and tie the game at two at the 7:40 mark of the period.
Matt Frattin followed Kulemin just over two minutes later with his second game-winning goal in as many games off a rebound in front and the Capitals’ collapse would be complete. The Caps would continue a fruitless effort to score and in the end would only throw 22 shots at Reimer all game. The closing moments featured a bizarre series that almost summed up the evening, when Ovechkin circled the offensive zone twice before passing it to a teammate who couldn’t get a scoring chance while precious seconds ticked away.
The loss is another bad one for a Washington team still struggling to find its identify and will to win. With its third coach in two years, it may start to become clear that the issues might not be behind the bench but instead who sits on it. Defensive lapses left Neuvirth high-and-dry for most of the night and the offense passed up good opportunities to shoot and elected to pass.
With the Philadelphia Flyers coming in on Friday and the Pittsburgh Penguins coming to town Sunday, Washington has the ability to make a statement about who they are. The team has to play a more focused brand of hockey, or there is absolutely no way they will not be 1-7-1 and all but out of the playoff hunt come Monday morning.