Almost at the Top, Capitals Catch a Break

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 25, 2008

Brent Johnson's vacation figures to be much more enjoyable.

The Washington Capitals' backup goaltender planned to leave for Las Vegas today to get in some relaxation during the three-day hiatus for the all-star game. Considering what Johnson endured in the frantic last moments of last night's 2-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs at Verizon Center, he definitely deserves a break.

Johnson stopped 31 shots, including two saves in the final minutes as the Maple Leafs applied pressure on the power play, to pick up his third straight victory and pull the Capitals within one point of Carolina for the Southeast Division lead.

"It would have been a long three days if we wouldn't have won," Johnson cracked.

Victory, though, hardly seemed secure against the Maple Leafs, who on Wednesday got a goal from Mats Sundin with 30 seconds remaining and escaped Air Canada Center with a 3-2 win over the Capitals.

They almost ruined Washington's night again.

The Capitals were clinging to a 2-1 lead when center David Steckel was sent to the penalty box for boarding defenseman Ian White with 2 minutes 18 seconds left to play. Maple Leafs goalie Vesa Toskala soon went to the bench, giving Toronto a 6-on-4 for 1:20.

But Johnson turned back attempts by Pavel Kubina and Sundin to bail out Steckel, one of the Capitals' best penalty killers, and clinch Washington's fourth win in five games.

"It looked worse than it really was," Steckel said of his hit from behind on White. "But I knew it wasn't going to be good if we lost this game because of me."

Since Coach Bruce Boudreau stepped behind the bench on Nov. 22, Johnson has been one of the team's best players. He is 5-1 with a 2.05 goals against average and .926 save percentage under Boudreau, and his coach believes he has earned the right to play more down the stretch.

"You could tell he was on his game," said Boudreau, who earned his first NHL coaching win over the team that drafted him in 1975. "His movement was great and we needed him because we were tired. We got outplayed pretty good for the first time in a while."

The Capitals took a 1-0 lead on a power-play goal by Brooks Laich in the first period, which is the way the game remained unit the third period.

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