TORONTO — Strong starts on the road have been far too infrequent for the Washington Capitals this season, but Saturday night they pounced on a team also vying for a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs and didn’t look back.
With the benefit of a two-goal head start in the first 3 minutes 46 seconds, Washington captured a valuable 4-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Capitals took advantage of opening the scoring for the first time in six road games to earn consecutive wins for the first time since a three-game stretch from Jan. 11 to 15.
Anchored by a sturdy 28-save outing by goaltender Michal Neuvirth, who started on consecutive nights for the first time this season, and fueled by scoring throughout the lineup, the Capitals handed Toronto its eighth loss in the past nine games.
“It’s very, very good feeling to get a lead right away,” said Marcus Johansson, who kicked the contest off with a goal in the first minute. “It’s much more comfortable to play with the lead than try to chase back. It’s a good feeling for the whole team to get a lead right away and after that we just kept going, we never really stopped.”
Washington (31-26-5) improved to 67 points but remains in ninth place in the East. Washington trails both the Southeast Division-leading Florida Panthers and the eighth-place Winnipeg Jets by one point. The Capitals have played two fewer games than the Panthers, but have two games in hand on the Jets.
The Capitals entered this meeting against the Toronto (29-26-7, 65 points) aware that anything short of two points would negate their momentum-building win the night before against Montreal. Not to mention, it was an opportunity for Washington to further demoralize a struggling Maple Leafs squad. The visitors wasted little time.
Thirty-two seconds after the opening faceoff, Johansson swooped down low into the offensive zone and stuffed a wrap-around past Toronto goaltender James Reimer (32 saves) for the Capitals’ first 1-0 lead on the road since Feb. 4 in Montreal.
“Jojo’s goal real early made it easier for guys to stick within the system and not feel like they have to extend themselves for two periods,” said Jeff Halpern, who added a goal in the second period. “We did a great job. I thought we had energy, I thought we had some pop in our legs. I thought that set the tone for the whole game. Knowing that they’ve had some struggles and that too — with the lead we could continue to press and try to lean on that a little bit.”
The goal silenced the crowd at Air Canada Centre and appeared to siphon any energy out of the home team. The Capitals’ early blitz didn’t end there.
Reimer, who had a .874 save percentage and 3.87 goals-against average in his previous six appearances, gave up a rebound on a shot by Alexander Semin that Toronto defenseman Luke Schenn initially recovered. Semin quickly stole the puck back from Schenn, though, and as he turned back toward the cage ripped a shot past Reimer to make it 2-0 just 3:46 into the game.
“It’s big especially on the road for us, them getting behind early,” Capitals Coach Dale Hunter said. “It’s hard to come back in this league. Just proves the point again, you’ve got to have a good first and good things will happen.”
Toronto didn’t put a shot on Neuvirth until 31 seconds after the Capitals took the two-goal lead. Phil Kessel, the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer, set up Tyler Bozak in the slot, and the center aimed between the goaltender’s pads. Neuvirth stopped the shot with an economy of movement and a calmness he exudes when he’s at his best.
“Obviously I had a good game [Friday against Montreal] and I was pretty confident coming into this game,” said Neuvirth, who stopped 58 of the 61 shots he faced on the weekend. “When your first save is a little bit breakaway and big stop, that got me going, and I felt great the rest of the way.”
In the second, Halpern added to the advantage with his first tally in 33 games, since Dec. 13 against Philadelphia. Positioned near the left post, Halpern was ready and waiting to bury a rebound off a point shot by Dmitry Orlov to make it 3-0 at 11:31.
Then it was Keith Aucoin’s turn. The center, recalled from the American Hockey League twice in the past month, tipped a puck past Reimer on a three-on-two with Johansson and Alex Ovechkin to give Washington a 4-0 cushion with just less than five minutes remaining in the second. It was Aucoin’s first NHL goal since Oct. 24, 2009.
The Capitals’ control of the game through 40 minutes seemed unquestioned as they outshot Toronto, 29-19, in that span. In the third, the Maple Leafs cut the deficit in half with goals by Colby Armstrong and Tim Connolly, but the comeback wouldn’t materialize.
Capitals note: Mike Knuble, Roman Hamrlik and John Erskine were healthy scratches.