Brooks Laich, Alex Ovechkin Each Score Twice as the Washington Capitals Beat the Toronto Maple Leafs

Brooks Laich ties the game at 1 against Toronto goalie Vesa Toskala. Laich has five goals in his past eight games.
Brooks Laich ties the game at 1 against Toronto goalie Vesa Toskala. Laich has five goals in his past eight games. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
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By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 29, 2008

Earlier this month, Washington Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau pulled aside Brooks Laich and gave the struggling forward some pointers and a pep talk.

"He was trying to deke everybody, be too cute," Boudreau recalled. "He needed to use his best attributes: shoot the puck and go to the net."

Laich got the message. In the eight games since their conversation, he has scored five goals, including two in a 4-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on a memorable night that began with Mike Gartner's jersey being raised to the rafters at Verizon Center.

"Right now, they're going in," said Laich, who fired five shots last night on Maple Leafs goalie Vesa Toskala, second only to Alex Ovechkin's seven. "It's fun when they're going in. So we'll just keep riding the wave and see how long we can go."

In the closing seconds, Laich put himself in position to score his first career hat trick. But Ovechkin, who also netted a pair of goals, chose not to force a pass through Toronto defenseman Tomas Kaberle and instead put the puck into the empty net himself to clinch the Capitals' eighth win in nine games and improve their home record to 15-1-1.

"When we got back to the bench he said, 'Sorry,' " Laich said of Ovechkin's decision to keep the puck. Ovechkin explained, "I try to get him the puck, but the defenseman was there."

Before the opening faceoff, Gartner joined Rod Langway, Yvon Labre and Dale Hunter as the only players in franchise history to have their jerseys retired. The current players took warmups in retro jerseys bearing Gartner's number, then donned white uniforms during the game, just as Gartner's teams did at Capital Centre.

After the ceremony, the Capitals came out flying. But Toskala (25 saves) was up to the task and shut them out in the opening 20 minutes, while Niklas Hagman fired a shot through a screen past José Theodore (23 saves) to put the Maple Leafs ahead 1-0.

That is all Theodore would yield en route to earning his third straight win, his longest streak this season.

"It's easier for a goalie to get on a roll when you play a lot," said Theodore, who has stopped 64 of 68 shots since allowing three goals on the first five shots he faced in New York on Tuesday for a .941 save percentage during that stretch. "When you play, you get into a rhythm."

Laich tied the game at 1 on the power play at 12 minutes 54 seconds of the second period after taking a pass down low from Nicklas Backstrom, then skating from the side of the net and stuffing the puck underneath Toskala.

Ovechkin, who has 11 goals in the past nine games, capped a remarkable shift by firing a shot through Toskala with 9.2 seconds remaining in the second period. Moments earlier, the reigning MVP had rung a shot off the goal post.

But the Capitals were forced to sweat it out, that is until Laich came to the rescue with 4:17 left to play.

Laich, who has 10 goals, crashed the crease and poked his own rebound past Toskala to put the Capitals up 3-1 and record his first multigoal game since March 14.

Defensemen Mike Green and Jeff Schultz -- the team's first- and fifth-ranked players in ice time, respectively -- returned to the lineup after being sidelined with injuries. Green logged 21:53 of ice time and a pair of assists, while Schultz finished with a plus-minus rating of plus-2 (tied for the team lead).

The Capitals, though, still remain far from having their full complement of players. Missing last night were Alexander Semin (back), Sergei Fedorov (ankle), Tomas Fleischmann (pneumonia), Tom Poti (groin) and John Erskine (concussion).

Since the injury situation took a turn for the worse in Minnesota on Nov. 24, the Capitals have gone 12-4, taken a 10-point lead in the Southeast Division (their largest since March 2001) and have moved into sole possession of second place in the Eastern Conference.

After the game, Laich deflected some of the spotlight from himself and put it on Gartner, the franchise's second-leading scorer.

"It's nothing about me," Laich said. "It's a nice night for [Gartner]. He's a living legend, scored 700 goals. He was Mr. Washington Capital. We couldn't let him down tonight."

Capitals Note: To make room on the roster for Green and Schultz, defenseman Tyler Sloan was reassigned to the minor league Hershey Bears.

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