TORONTO — Before the Washington Capitals wrapped up their game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night, they were already guaranteed a fourth consecutive Southeast Division title. After a shootout win, they regained first place in the Eastern Conference.
Mike Knuble was the only one of eight shooters to score a goal in the tiebreak, securing a 3-2 Capitals victory over the Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre. Washington improved to 105 points, two ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers, who lost 4-2 to the Ottawa Senators.
The Buffalo Sabres’ 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning earlier Tuesday night clinched the division title that Washington’s eventual shootout win would have brought anyway. Regardless, the accolade is just one checkmark on Washington’s overall to-do list of goals.
“Right now, we clinch our division,” said Alex Ovechkin, who asked for confirmation that Philadelphia lost before assessing the victory. “So it’s kind of a huge game for us. We want to be in first everywhere.”
Ovechkin scored his 300th career goal and John Erskine recorded his first tally since Nov. 26. They were the only players to best Toronto’s rookie goaltender, James Reimer, who did everything he could to hold the Capitals at bay while being bombarded with 41 shots. The Maple Leafs were held to 21 shots.
With the exception of Reimer, who was named the NHL’s rookie of the month for March, the Capitals seemed able to wear down the Maple Leafs over the course of the contest by successfully bringing back the fundamentals that had gotten away from them over the past 10 days or so.
“I thought we played well,” said Coach Bruce Boudreau, who has won division titles in each of his four seasons at the helm. “You’re not going to go through a game without another team having scoring chances, but all-in-all I thought we did really well. We got pucks out, we had chances. They looked a little tired, I think — mentally tired. It’s hard hanging on and hanging on and hanging on and I thought as the game wore on we kept getting it deep and wearing them down a bit.”
Washington gave up an early goal when a wrist shot by Nikolai Kulemin on a power play deflected off defenseman Karl Alzner and past goaltender Michal Neuvirth for a 1-0 Toronto lead just 5 minutes 37 seconds into the contest. Despite that early deficit and the fact that the Maple Leafs were playing to keep their playoff hopes alive — they were extinguished by the Sabres’ win — the Capitals started to work on the Toronto defensemen down low.
Then there was Ovechkin, buzzing around the offensive zone with an unparalleled energy that resulted in multiple high-quality scoring chances. With the Capitals on a 20-second, two-man-advantage Ovechkin called for the puck above the left faceoff circle and unleashed a booming one-time shot that tied the score.
By the first intermission, Washington held an edge in momentum. But early in the second period, Maple Leafs winger Joffrey Lupul slipped past the defense to the right post and was able to tap home a goal with Neuvirth going left-to-right on the play. Those chances were much more rare for Toronto than for Washington.
“If they did get a chance, we were responsible and we cleared it up and got it out of there,” Knuble said. “We were pretty good on the one-on-one battles. I think we made their D turn around and chase down pucks a lot and that gets tiring and annoying after a while.”
Despite the deficit, the Capitals began to ratchet up their dominance of the play. But no matter how many shots they challenged Reimer with, the Toronto netminder remained unfazed until a bounce finally went Washington’s way.
Just more than 12 minutes into the second period, a point shot by Erskine, a defenseman who missed the previous contest with an undisclosed injury, caromed off the body of Toronto’s Luke Schenn and past Reimer to tie the game at 2.
Washington continued to pour pucks on the Toronto net and Reimer remained steady, turning aside key chances and bringing the home crowd to its feet for an ovation. But eventually in the shootout, even the latest idol to wear a Maple Leaf sweater yielded to the Capitals’ fourth shooter, Knuble, who scored his first shootout goal of the season for the win.
Note: Capitals General Manager George McPhee said Mike Green, who has missed 18 straight games with a concussion and 24 of the past 26, could play Wednesday against the Florida Panthers.
“We’ll discuss that tomorrow morning,” McPhee said, when asked if Green would play Wednesday. “We expect him to be ready for the playoffs and we just have to decide if we play him now, Saturday or both.”