WASHINGTON D.C. – The hole was three goals deep after just eight minutes and 44 seconds. And it would ultimately prove too daunting for the Maple Leafs to overcome in the U.S. capital.
Doomed by the drudge of a sleepy start they fell in regulation Sunday afternoon for just the fifth time in the past 23 games (15-5-4), their comeback attempts sullied a 4-2 loss to the feisty Washington Capitals.
Coming off a successful swing through the California triangle – they won twice – Toronto mustered just two shots in a stunted opening 20 minutes back east, down 3-0 before the frame was even halfway over. Washington scored twice on its first two power-play attempts, adding another from Jason Chimera at even-strength.
“It looked like we were still in for our afternoon nap,” mused head coach Randy Carlyle of the period with some frustration afterward.
“We weren't good enough in the first 10 minutes,” added James Reimer, appearing in his third straight game. “You can't spot a team three goals. We just weren't sharp, myself included, and it cost us. I thought we dominated the second and the third was anyone's game, we just couldn't quite climb out of the three-goal hole.”
The Leafs did dominate the middle period with the same emphasis as the Capitals did the first. They outshot the home-side 10-1 in the opening 11 minutes and 20-6 overall. But with three power-play opportunities and a slew of chances to score they could only get one by Jaroslav Halak, the eighth this season from Dion Phaneuf.
David Clarkson had maybe the best opportunity to even the proceedings at three. Stuck with just one goal in the past 21 games and only four this season, the 29-year-old thought he'd beaten Halak only to see the puck trickle off the goaltender and out.
“That's been the story this year,” Clarkson said. “I think even if I didn't celebrate it was still laying there for me to poke in.”
Never coming closer he and the Leafs fell for the second time on a season-long road trip that wraps up Tuesday in Detroit against the hurting Red Wings. The momentum of emphatic wins in Anaheim and L.A. failed to carry over on the road back east.
Knowing that first place in the Atlantic division is lost – Boston is up 15 points – Toronto has set its sights now on securing second spot and home-ice advantage in the first round. With 13 games to go they have 80 points, one up on Tampa and Montreal, who each carry games in hand.
“If we would've won this one we would've been in a great spot,” said Carl Gunnarsson of the road trip at large. “We've got a big one coming up here in Detroit to make it a good one.”
1. First Periods
A nemesis on Sunday afternoon and all season for that matter, first periods have been a regular sore spot for the Leafs. Washington scored three unanswered in the opening frame on this day. Troy Bodie added a late goal to cut the deficit to two, just the second of two shots in the period for Toronto.
Utterly displeased with his team's performance, Carlyle gathered the entire team for a chat during the second TV timeout. “It was more or less just get going,” Bodie said of Carlyle's message. “We didn't have our feet going. We weren't ready to play.”
The Leafs boast a minus-15 goal differential in first periods this season, by far the worst of the three stanzas. Scoring their second of the night while out-shooting the Capitals 20-6, they improved to plus-13 in second periods.
“I think finally we got our legs under us,” said Clarkson. “We started going and we kind of put them back on their heels a little bit.”
2. PK Stumbles
The rising Leafs penalty kill entered the day with an 88 per cent success rate in the previous 14 games, turning the corner from an awful first half.
“We knew we couldn't give up on it,” Jay McClement told the Leaf Report before the game. “We just had to keep working and we'd get better because virtually it's the same group of us from last year. I don't know what the reason was [for our struggles], but now it seems like we've got the confidence back.”
That is until they faced the second best power-play unit in the league at the Verizon Center. Shadowing Alex Ovechkin, who leads the league with 19 power-play goals, the Leafs gave up a pair on Washington's first two opportunities with the man advantage, once from an open Troy Brouwer in the slot, a second from Joel Ward on the back-door.
“We missed assignments on our coverage,” said Carlyle. “You can't let Troy Brouwer shoot the puck from 10 feet in front of your goaltender. There's obviously a missed assignment and missed coverage in that situation.”
3. Man Advantage Yields Little
Boasting just two goals now in the past 11 games – 7 per cent in that span – the Toronto power-play meanwhile continued its dry spell. The Leafs grappled with three consecutive power-plays in the middle period, but failed to score even once.
“We believe in our power-play,” said Joffrey Lupul prior to the game. “And there's going to be stretches when you don't get those goals, but as long as we keep doing things right with some of the scorers we have on the team eventually the power-play opportunities are going to turn into goals.”
Punch-less on many recent nights, the Leafs did have their opportunities against the Capitals, mustering eight shots. Sneaking in from the right point Cody Franson had maybe the best opportunity to beat Halak, but was ultimately turned aside.
The unit currently sits in a four-way tie for third overall at 20.7 per cent.
James Reimer made his third straight appearance Sunday, starting in place of the injured Jonathan Bernier. Fighting the puck early, Reimer yielded three goals on the first five shots, but settled as the night wore on. He made key stops in the final frame, including one on Jason Chimera breaking in partially alone.
Citing the now 26-year-old's rebound trouble in that opening frame, Carlyle said he considered pulling Reimer in favour of Drew MacIntyre after the third Washington goal.
“We did think about that,” said Carlyle. “But I didn't want to throw Drew into that type of situation without giving him a heads up …We've got Reims here and we've got to show the confidence for him to fight through some of those situations. We know that Reims is going to start the next game in all probability.”
Carlyle had little to offer as far as an update on Bernier, who remained with the team in Washington Sunday ahead of the trip to Detroit. It's clear the 25-year-old will miss his second straight game against the Red Wings Tuesday, the clarity of lower-body injury yet to be fully revealed.
5. Kadri's Evolution
Nazem Kadri said recently that “I want to become a complete player that this team can trust” and among coaches and teammates that desire for evolution has been seen on the ice. “I think he's maturing as a player,” said Carlyle of the 23-year-old, who established a new career-high for points in Los Angeles this past Thursday night.
“I still think there's some room for Nazzie to grow. But I still think you've got to give the kid credit. He's under a microscope. He's under a lot of pressure to come in as a young player and play those minutes. We have all kinds of confidence [in him]. [But] maybe not as much confidence as he has if you know what I mean.”
“He's better in his defensive zone for sure,” added Lupul. “Just positioning and using his body and his stick down low. I think everyone probably saw the offensive talents [which] have always been there, but now – I've been playing on his line for a while now – he's pretty reliable defensively. And as a winger he gets in a spot where you're able to find him, get him the puck.”
For Lupul, that's the indicator for when Kadri is at his best. “I think that's one thing for me that when he's playing really well that's what I notice about being on his line is he's putting himself in a spot where he's basically demanding the puck and that he gets it. That shows his confidence and that's how you can kind of tell when he's on the top of his game.”
Kadri finished with two shots in 20 minutes against the Capitals.
35-40 – Toronto penalty kill over 14 games preceding Sunday in Washington.
54 – Consecutive games missed by Dave Bolland, who is still recovering from a left ankle injury, his return status as yet unknown.
15-5-3 – Leafs record in the past 23 games.
2-28 – Toronto power-play over the past 11 games.
29 – Points this season for Dion Phaneuf, eclipsing the mark he set in 48 games last season. Fighting the flu, Phaneuf had a goal and an assist in defeat against the Capitals.
42-57 – Goal differential for the Leafs in first periods this season, favouring the opposition.
8-15-4 – Leafs record this season when trailing after the first period.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 20.7% (T-3rd)
Season: 78.4% (28th)
Quote of the Night
“It looked like we were still in for our afternoon nap.”
-Randy Carlyle, on his team's performance in the opening period Sunday.
The Leafs conclude their five-game road trip with a division battle against the Red Wings on Tuesday.