After an emotional comeback victory over the Boston Bruins on Saturday, the Toronto Maple Leafs took their recent positive vibes to the road, with the first stop being in Washington to take on the Capitals at the Verizon Center. The Leafs were desperately looking to string together a few wins, while the Capitals tried to avoid their third consecutive loss. The play of Jonas Gustavsson during the absence of J.S. Gigeure was solid and steady. Although his performance gave the team a chance to win every game, it was consistently spoiled by a lack of offence and mental breakdowns. As the Leafs aimed to reverse those fortunes, Gustavsson found himself back between the pipes, and his counterpart for the Capitals would be Michal Neuvirth.
A speedy first period saw the Capitals get off to an early lead. Mathieu Perreault tipped a point shot from Tom Poti, after a failed attempt to clear the zone by the Leafs defense. One area needing a drastic improvement for the Leafs is their power play, and they were able to get on the board in the first. Clarke MacArthur took a hit at the blue-line and somehow found the puck as he got to his feet, beating Neuvirth and tying the game at 1. The even score would be short lived, as Mike Knuble would regain the Capital’s lead on the power play. A shot deflected into the slot by Mike Komisarek, and Knuble made no mistake putting it past Gustavsson. Both teams would trade chances as the period went on, however the score would remain 2-1 heading into first intermission.
With the Leafs unable to bury a few good chances early in the second period, the Capitals increased their lead by 2. A flurry of sloppy defensive coverage found the Leafs running around and Mathieu Perreault made it 3-1 scoring his second goal of the game. The tension would boil over soon after that as D.J. King addressed a previous Colton Orr hit on Alex Ovechkin, in a tilt with the Leaf enforcer. Prior to the game much was made of the incredible numbers Ovechkin holds in games against the Maple Leafs. Those numbers would increase as the Washington Captain would snipe an unstoppable wrist-shot over the shoulder of Gustavsson. Ovechkin’s 19th goal in 21 games against the Leafs would send his team into the second intermission with the 4-1 lead.
Desperation seemed to sink in for the Leafs in the third period and they began to generate a stronger forecheck which led to some great chances. Nikolai Kulemin wouldn’t quit on the puck and was able to keep it in the zone with the help of Tomas Kaberle. Mikhail Grabovski one-timed the Kaberle pass behind Neuvirth and the Leafs closed the three goal gap to two. The pressure continued for the Leafs and some strong goaltending allowed them to script another comeback in the U.S. Capital. Nazem Kadri, who made a few nice plays on the night was rewarded with an assist on the Leafs third goal. Kaberle blasted the Kadri pass on net, only to be tipped by Tim Brent, who was making things difficult for Neuvirth. The momentum shifted visibly and the Leafs took full advantage of a shaky Capitals team. Clarke MacArthur’s second goal of the night was a big one, tying the game at 4 on a nifty pass from Mikhail Grabovski. The Capitals saw a three goal lead erased by the Leafs once again, and with overtime not enough, the emotional comeback would see a shootout as the deciding factor.
The shootout would be highlighted by a spinning Mikhail Grabovski goal and three consecutive saves from Jonas Gustavsson, one of which was an incredible effort to get his stick on the puck, dramatically turning away Mathieu Perreault. Gustavsson, who has struggled in the shootout was determined to seize the Leaf’s third period comeback. After the game, Head Coach Ron Wilson spoke off the “Monster” performance from his swedish netminder.
“It’s big. His save on Perreault was a real great second effort save. He’s struggled in the shootouts, so getting three stops in that fashion was great for him.”
Over the last few weeks and surrounding their struggles, the talk around the Leafs has been about desperation. As losses continued to pile, it was the lack of desperation that saw their offensive numbers sputter and position among the standings drop rapidly. However the players would use the desperation in their favor on Saturday against the Bruins and in dramatic fashion tonight in Washington. Pleased with his team’s effort, Ron Wilson would avoid any cliches and speak of the spark Colby Armstrong has given the team since his return.
“It’s so overused (a character win). It’s such a bad cliche. We’re desperate now and throwing everything at them. Again I look to what Colby Armstrong brings to our bench in terms of how verbal he is. He wasn’t going to let his friends hang there head and feel sorry for themselves. Because of that we kept pushing.”
Cliche or not, the consecutive wins for the Leafs were that of character. Trying to keep his team hungry and unsatisfied, Wilson will refrain from using any terminology that suggests his squad is where he would like them to be. The same character that saw this Leafs team start the season on a high, disappeared frequently, leading many to believe firing Wilson would be the quick fix to the problem. GM Brian Burke stood by his Coach and longtime friend, and it seems as if so too have the players. How long that will remain to be seen however will depend on their ability to consistently land in the win column. Although a tough week has started on a high note, the task won’t get any easier. A date with Sidney Crosby and the Penguins on Wednesday, the Flyers on the following night, and finishing with an always exciting Hockey Night in Canada against the Canadiens will determine if the train that is the Toronto Maple Leafs has found its way back on track.
About the Author
Written by RJ Emptage
Operations Manager of a retail chain in Southern Ontario (Sports Obsession). Specialize in licensed sports apparel and novelties (Visit sportsobsession.ca). Being from the Hamilton area I grew up and into a die-hard Toronto Maple Leaf Fan, and look forward to a bright blue and white future...(I know that sounds crazy doesn't it?) Love all things sports and the next best thing to playing them, is talking them!