Toronto’s Connor Brown pokes a puck under Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby during the third period of the Maple Leafs’ 2-0 win. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

As goaltender Braden Holtby scrambled in the crease with the puck among his pads, Toronto forward Connor Brown gave it one whack and then another, nudging it through Holtby's legs for a goal. Entering Tuesday night's game, the Washington Capitals likely would have been pleased that a high-powered Maple Leafs offense managed just one goal on Holtby.

Washington's recent defensive struggles have drawn much of the attention, but it was the offense that stalled against Toronto. The Capitals were shut out in a 2-0 loss, with the second goal going into an empty net in the last minute of the game. The team took one step forward defensively and one step back offensively as it continues to search for the right balance of both.

“They scored on their chance,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “We just need to score on ours.”

The last time these two teams played each other was in April in a first-round playoff series that Washington won. At the time, the Maple Leafs were announcing themselves as future contenders while the Capitals were holding their position as the more seasoned and structured group. But Tuesday’s game was something of an early-season measuring stick for both squads.

Judging by this matchup, the Maple Leafs appear to have established more of an identity than this version of the Capitals, who are still very much a work in progress with five new faces in the lineup. This is the first time the Maple Leafs have ever blanked the Capitals in Washington.

“We’d be kidding ourselves if we’re not going to have some growing pains along the way,” Holtby said. “It’s just how we handle them and what we do with them. How do we fight through them and get better? Because we know we have the capability in this locker room. It doesn’t take one week or two weeks to build a team chemistry and a team identity. It takes a while. As long as we’re working at it and have full commitment, it’ll come sooner rather than later.”

Toronto entered the game scoring more than five goals per game, the most in the NHL, while Washington averaged 3.67 goals per game and centers Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov were tied for the league lead in points with 11.

But what was expected to be a high-flying, high-scoring matchup was the opposite after 40 minutes. Neither team had scored, and both recorded only 17 shots on goal through two periods as players on both sides fumbled scoring chances.

“I think these teams now both respect each other a lot,” Capitals forward Tom Wilson said. “Both teams have a lot of firepower in the top six, and you know what, both teams have kind of seen what the other can do. Maybe there was a bit of a feeling-out period and respecting kind of on the defensive side of the puck.”

For Washington, holding the Maple Leafs scoreless through two periods felt like a win in itself. The Capitals entered this matchup depleted with top defenseman Matt Niskanen out for a second straight game with a hand injury. The Capitals had been struggling defensively even with Niskanen in the lineup, allowing the sixth-most shots against through five games. But in the team’s first game without Niskanen on Saturday against the Philadelphia Flyers, an inexperienced defense that includes two rookies allowed eight goals in regulation for the first time since 2006 in an 8-2 loss.

In addition to putting its depleted defense up against the highest-scoring team in the league, Washington was without its checking-line center because Lars Eller was too sick to play. Tyler Graovac centered the third line in place of Eller, but after Graovac played just five shifts and 2:41 in the first period, he suffered an upper-body injury that ruled him out for the rest of the game. After the game, Trotz said he wasn’t sure of the extent of Graovac’s injury yet, just that “he’s going to miss a little bit of time here.”

Washington had just one practice day to correct the issues that led to the humiliating loss in Philadelphia. Perhaps with this blue-line personnel, the Capitals couldn’t afford to be the freewheeling offensive team of the past few years and needed to adopt a more conservative approach. As Trotz said Monday, “If you want to trade chances against the Toronto Maple Leafs, I know who’s winning that.”

The demoralizing part about Tuesday’s loss was that Washington did well to avoid trading chances with the Maple Leafs, and the Capitals just didn’t capitalize on their own.

Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen finished with 30 saves to earn the shutout.

"I thought defensively we were obviously better than in Philly, but we're going to need to score some goals," forward Brett Connolly said. "I think it's a step in the right direction defensively, but we weren't scoring tonight. That's how it works. You've got to bring both elements to the game to win, and we didn't do that tonight."