TORONTO — The Washington Capitals, who are barely clinging to a playoff spot as the all-star break approaches, got off to an encouraging start against the high-powered Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday at Scotiabank Arena.
It was another lackluster outcome for a Capitals team that has sputtered over the past month, leaving its playoff positioning all the more vulnerable. With one game left before their bye week wraps around Saturday’s All-Star Game for a 10-day break — and with challengers surging ever closer to them in the standings — the Capitals could quickly find themselves on the outside looking in.
“If you want to make the playoffs … you have to put a couple wins together,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “That is what we need. It is too tight in the standings and, I mean, teams are catching up.”
Even after Sunday’s loss, the Capitals (26-20-6) still hold the Eastern Conference’s first of two wild-card spots with 58 points. But the Pittsburgh Penguins (57), Buffalo Sabres (56), New York Islanders (55) and Florida Panthers (54) aren’t far behind — and the Penguins and Sabres have three games in hand.
The Capitals have lost three of four, four of six and six of nine. Washington’s next game is Tuesday at Columbus, the Eastern Conference’s last-place team. The Capitals’ first game after the break is Feb. 11 at Boston.
“Obviously the standings are getting tight this time of year and you want to keep climbing as much as you can. … But losing after a [win] is something we have to avoid and start stringing together some wins,” winger Conor Sheary said.
A goal from Backstrom, his first of the season, gave the Capitals a 1-0 lead with 2:43 left in the first period. On the power play, Marcus Johansson provided a screen, and Backstrom shot high and to the short side to beat ex-Capitals goaltender Ilya Samsonov (23 saves). It was Backstrom’s first goal in nine games since he returned from hip resurfacing surgery; he also had the shootout winner in Washington’s 3-2 win over Pittsburgh on Thursday.
But after Backstrom’s goal, Toronto took over.
“We took a step back in the second,” Sheary said. “We started feeding their transition, and we didn’t defend hard enough.”
Toronto’s Michael Bunting tied the score at 1 with a rebound power-play goal at 1:29 of the second period. It was the first power-play goal Washington had allowed in seven games. Morgan Rielly then scored his first goal of the season at 7:00 to put Toronto ahead. After a puck popped loose from a scrum behind the net, Rielly was all alone in front and beat goalie Darcy Kuemper.
William Nylander’s goal on an odd-man rush during a delayed penalty gave Toronto a 3-1 lead at 10:45. Kuemper, with help from defenseman Erik Gustafsson, made the initial stop on the three-on-one but couldn’t deny Nylander on the rebound.
Pierre Engvall beat Kuemper glove-side to make it 4-1 at 14:20, ending Kuemper’s night after 16 saves. Charlie Lindgren replaced him and finished with six saves; he allowed a goal to Zach Aston-Reese on a breakaway with 3:13 left in the game.
Sunday’s loss was the second time in four starts that Kuemper was pulled.
“I think a few guys are gripping their stick a little bit [too tightly],” Sheary said. “We just got to get a couple bounces here and there. Maybe the break will be good for us after this next one.”
Here’s what else to know about the Capitals’ loss:
Wilson out until after break
Winger Tom Wilson did not travel with the Capitals for this two-game trip. There is no timeline for his return from a lower-body injury, and Washington will reevaluate him after the all-star break.
Wilson was injured Tuesday in a loss at Colorado after he blocked a shot with his right leg. Washington listed him as day-to-day, but he was spotted at practice Saturday with a noticeable hitch in his stride.
Carlson’s slow recovery
On Saturday, defenseman John Carlson skated for the first time since he took a puck to the side of his head during a game against Winnipeg on Dec. 23. Carlson wore a tracksuit on the ice at the Capitals’ practice rink, and his workout was far from a full skating session. The Capitals said Carlson would continue to do “low-level exercise” and would be reevaluated in late February.
“It’s great,” Coach Peter Laviolette said. “It’s off in the distance for him. He’s back, and he looks good. He looks like himself.”
Missing Toronto stars
Samsonov faced his former team for the third time and got his second win. The 25-year-old Russian got a little payback after he suffered a 5-2 loss in December during his first game back in Washington. Fellow goaltender Matt Murray is sidelined until after the all-star break with an ankle injury.
Toronto also was without star forward Auston Matthews. The Maple Leafs said he would be sidelined for at least three weeks with a knee injury.