With the gravity of each game amplified as they scramble for a postseason berth, the Washington Capitals emerged from this weekend in a much more fulfilling position following a tidy 2-0 victory over Toronto on Sunday before an announced crowd of 18,506 at Verizon Center.
Not only did the Capitals run their winning streak to three, but they moved four points ahead of Winnipeg and Buffalo for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and remained a point behind Florida for first place in the Southeast Division.
Thanks to goals from Brooks Laich and Mathieu Perreault and Michal Neuvirth’s third shutout this season, Washington collected four points in two days by improving to 7-1-1 against the Maple Leafs over the past nine games, including 5-0-1 at home during that span. The Capitals’ first two points of the weekend came courtesy of a 4-3 road win against Boston.
“Really, really big 48 hours,” said Laich, whose goal came in the first period. “I think we’re finding our identity. I think we’re comfortable with our system. We’re starting to elevate. Players are playing better, and we’ve had some consistency with the lineup. Things are going well.”
Neuvirth made 23 saves to win for the first time this month. It was the sixth time in his past eight starts Neuvirth has yielded two goals or fewer, and he kept the shutout intact with a nifty kick save midway through the third period.
Perreault made the going significantly less taxing for Neuvirth by scoring 42 seconds into the third period. The diminutive center beat goalie Jonas Gustavsson (21 saves) on a rebound of Alexander Semin’s shot after the right wing skated past defenseman John-Michael Liles and center Mikhail Grabovski.
Semin’s shot trickled into traffic, and when Gustavsson couldn’t locate and control the puck, Perreault buried the goal while planted to the right of the crease. It was the 12th goal of the season for Perreault and all but assured the Capitals a fortifying win heading into the final 13 games, including the next five on the road.
“Once we got that two-goal lead, it’s easier to defend,” Perreault said. “You don’t have to sit back as much, and you can still push because if you get scored on, it’s not that big.”
The Capitals (35-28-6) came out aggressively in the first period, and that translated into lengthy possessions in the offensive zone. Washington moved the puck crisply, had Gustavsson off-balance and got the first power-play opportunity of the game when Toronto was called for too many men on the ice at 2 minutes 32 seconds.
Washington’s normally underwhelming power-play unit, which entered the weekend having converted two of its past 37 chances, showed ample pluck this time. With decisive passing, the Capitals had Toronto (30-31-8) on its heels throughout the man advantage, which peaked when Laich received the puck in the slot and fired on goal.
Gustavsson made the save, but Laich’s blast provided an indicator of what was soon to come. With Washington a man down midway through the first following Semin’s tripping penalty in the offensive end, Laich collected a turnover by defenseman Jake Gardiner in the neutral zone and zeroed in on Gustavsson.
Gardiner and Toronto center Phil Kessel were unable to make up ground on Laich, who flipped a shot into the net at 10:07 for his 14th goal of the season and the Capitals’ third short-handed strike. Forward Jason Chimera owns the other two short-handed goals for Washington, which took that 1-0 margin into intermission.
That’s where the score remained after two periods, as well. The Capitals had the puck zipping in front of Gustavsson, with Alex Ovechkin and Mike Knuble each coming up empty on scoring chances. Still, Washington remained the more energetic and determined team, with Neuvirth making a handful of stops as the Maple Leafs scrambled for an equalizer.
“It was a team effort,” Capitals Coach Dale Hunter said. “We got a short-handed goal, and we played good defense for the whole game. We got a shutout because of it. When they did get through, we stood tall.”