Braden Holtby stopped in front of the Washington Capitals’ bench and gazed up at the video board. After more than 90 minutes of hockey, he needed one more look at the painful way this game ended.
Defenseman John Carlson lost his stick, and the puck got to Toronto Maple Leafs rookie Kasperi Kapanen beside the net. Carlson slid to block the shot, but Kapanen had a look at an open net with Holtby still looking for the puck behind him.
When he stared up at the scoreboard one last time, it read Maple Leafs 4, Capitals 3.
“Just a tough break, and we move on,” Holtby said.
Washington was unable to complete a late rally in a second straight game, and this one dragged on until it was nearly midnight. The young Maple Leafs, previously unfamiliar with the frenzy of this moment, got the double-overtime goal courtesy of a fourth-liner in Kapanen who scarcely played during the regular season.
He was Saturday night’s hero with two goals and the shot that lifted the Maple Leafs to a win in Game 2 of the first-round series with Washington. The series shifts to Toronto even at one game apiece and looking much more competitive than many expected, with the league’s top playoff seed struggling to contain the East’s second wild card.
The Maple Leafs have put themselves in this favorable position by playing with the lead or tied for the majority of the first two games. They have trailed Washington for less than four minutes total.
“We’ve been chasing this series a little bit,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “It’s been a little bit of an uphill battle, so it’s been a test. But we’re going to Toronto, and we’ll see if we can do what they did to us.”
With eight minutes left in regulation and the Capitals again trailing the Maple Leafs, Washington’s first line of Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and captain Alex Ovechkin helped complete another comeback. Along with defensemen Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov, the top trio had a monster shift, keeping the puck in the offensive zone for more than a minute.
Orlov carried the puck to the point and then sent it toward the net. Toronto defenseman Jake Gardiner got a stick on the shot, and the puck went to Backstrom, standing beside a wide-open net with an exhausted Frederik Andersen out of position. Backstrom tapped in the tying goal, setting Verizon Center ablaze in a cacophony of goal horns and cow bells.
The issue was that Backstrom’s goal marked the first one at even strength for the Capitals, and they have been outscored by the Maple Leafs 5-3 in those situations throughout the series. Andersen made 41 saves in Game 1 on Thursday and then 47 saves Saturday night.
“We’ve got to try to get in front of him a little more so he can’t see the puck,” Backstrom said. “He’s been good, too. We got to get in front of him a little more.”
That Washington was able to come from behind and force overtime for a second straight game was a credit to its potent power play. Both teams had a man-advantage in the first overtime period, but neither broke through. Holtby lost his cool when he slashed center Nazem Kadri in front of his net. Ovechkin served the penalty for Holtby, and after the Capitals survived the penalty kill, Ovechkin sprung out of the box and pounced on a loose puck for a breakaway. Andersen denied him twice in 10 seconds, and then the buzzer for the end of the fourth period sounded.
“Obviously their goalie play well tonight,” Ovechkin said. “Same as the first game. It’s okay. Nobody say we’re going win 4-0 and move forward. It’s a battle. They’re a good team. We’re just going to play game by game, shift by shift, and going to do our best.”
The only time the Capitals have played with the lead this series came briefly in the second period. With Toronto holding a 1-0 lead after the first period, Ovechkin scored on the power play from his sweet spot in the left faceoff circle to tie the game. Then Maple Leafs defenseman Connor Carrick was whistled for high-sticking against Daniel Winnik, and Washington took a 2-1 lead with a one-timer from Carlson.
That lead lasted less than four minutes. A hard hit by Brooks Orpik injured Toronto defenseman Roman Polak, who had to be helped off the ice and didn’t return to the game. Perhaps spurred on by seeing a teammate go down, the Maple Leafs scored on the next shift. A pass from Matt Martin went off Winnik’s skate and took a fortunate bounce for Toronto to Kapanen in front of the net. He stuffed the puck in through Holtby’s legs.
Washington again found itself “chasing,” as Trotz put it, after defenseman Morgan Rielly scored on a power play with less than a minute left in the second period.
“I don’t think that’s our problem right now,” Backstrom said. “I think it’s two good teams going at it, back and forth. We had the lead there, and then they scored to tie it up. I don’t know what to say. They’re a good team. Two good teams playing good hockey. So if we want to win these games, I think we’ve got to capitalize on the chances we got in the third and early in overtime. We had some good looks. But it’s 1-1. So let’s move over to Toronto.”
That Washington again found itself in this position, trailing late in the game, was frustrating after the Capitals vowed to improve its start to the game. On Thursday night, Washington fell into a two-goal hole less than 10 minutes into the game, having to claw back to win in overtime. On Saturday, the Capitals held Toronto without a shot for the first 10:58, but they still fell down a goal early.
Slow starts plagued the team all of last year, and it was something the Capitals successfully focused on cleaning up this season. Washington played with the lead more than any other team in the NHL this year. Second to the Capitals in the Eastern Conference? The Maple Leafs.