WASHINGTON – Another blast from the point by Matt Niskanen on the power play got the Washington Capitals another victory in a season full of them. But pulling one out of the fire against the NHL’s last-place team didn’t make anyone all that thrilled.
The Capitals beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2 on Wednesday night to match the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings’ mark of 47 wins through 63 games. Washington is lapping the rest of the field and cruising toward home-ice advantage, yet that’s not what players are thinking about.
“We didn’t have a ton of emotion tonight, a ton of fight in our game,” Niskanen said. “We’re struggling with that part of it right now. We’re winning. But I think we all know deep down that we’re much better than we’ve showed.”
The youthful yet physically overmatched Maple Leafs put 29 shots on net to the Capitals’ 23. Washington backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer made 27 saves, which teammates said was the key.
Perhaps more importantly, the Capitals continued to flex their muscles on the power play. After Nikita Soshnikov and Colin Greening erased the 2-0 lead built on goals by Taylor Chorney and Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals won the game in the third period 11 seconds into their fourth power play.
“The power play here has found different ways to score goals,” said forward T.J Oshie, who set a screen on Niskanen’s goal. “Obviously, you got (Ovechkin) over there on the side, that’s always your No. 1 option. But there’s so many different ways we’ve been scoring them, and that’s going to be huge at the end of the season here and into the post-season.”
With the playoffs in mind, Capitals players expressed concern over their recent play. Chorney, whose goal was his first since Feb. 15, 2011, lamented a lack of full, 60-minute performances of late.
“We’ve been fortunate where we got enough firepower where we can kind of find a way to win, but we know down the stretch and in the playoffs it’s not going to be that easy,” Chorney said.
It wasn’t even easy against the Maple Leafs, who have a league-worst 52 points in 62 games. This is a rebuilding season for Toronto, which had four young prospects playing their second NHL games in Soshnikov, William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen and Zach Hyman.
“I thought some of us were pretty good, and some of us got to compete harder,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said of his young players. “If you’re not going to compete, it doesn’t matter how much skill you have, you’re not going to play in the National Hockey League very long.”
Mentoring the kids is one reason the Maple Leafs took on Brooks Laich in a trade with the Capitals on Sunday. Washington got Daniel Winnik in the deal for Laich, who was honoured with a video tribute Tuesday night in his quick return after 12 years with the Capitals.
Laich and the Capitals should get some closure, with the 32-year-old turning his focus toward his next job and his former teammates setting their sights on the playoffs. The game against the Maple Leafs was not a positive sign on the road there.
“We weren’t very good tonight, I don’t think,” Winnik said. “I think the shots kind of showed that. They were holding us at bay, but that’s what they do. Maybe just a lull in our game tonight in back-to-backs.”
That can explain a lot, given that the Capitals played the Pittsburgh Penguins the previous night. Still, a one-goal game against the Maple Leafs wasn’t a cause for celebration.
“Give them some credit, they have a bunch of young guys in there full of energy and excited as all hell to be in the NHL,” Niskanen said. “They gave us all we could handle tonight. Grubi was really good and we won. I guess at the end of the day that’s what really counts.”
NOTES: Capitals D Nate Schmidt was out with a lower-body injury. … Connor Carrick, the defenceman Washington sent to Toronto with Laich for Winnik, picked up a secondary assist on Greening’s goal.