WASHINGTON — About all the Maple Leafs could expect to get from the Verizon Center before Wednesday night were the free red scarves they were handing out to everyone.
And you couldn’t blame Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals for smelling blood with the rink turned rouge and a sagging Toronto team playing on no rest and absorbing bad injury news about their captain from the night before.
But Toronto’s new-look defence now knows it can thrive for one game against the good teams, helping in a three-goal rally in the third, killing an overtime penalty with Ovechkin and handing it back to the forwards in the shootout. They settled for a point when Ovechkin and Alex Semin scored in a shootout, the 5-4 result giving Toronto four straight losses.
The schedule gods did not allow Toronto much time to implement Plan B for the D after its minute-munching captain was lost a month with a badly cut leg. The Leafs surprised themselves with a fine first period with new pairings and forward lines. Toronto rallied for three in the third, including two authored by Tomas Kaberle and a couple of red lights tripped by slumping Kris Versteeg and Tyler Bozak.
The Capitals had put three goals past Jonas Gustavsson in the second period.
It’s unknown if by Saturday’s game against Buffalo that Korbinian Holzer will be in the lineup after getting a late summons from the Marlies, but the answer still lies with the incumbents on the blue line.
Francois Beauchemin had Komisarek instead of Phaneuf as a partner most of the game, the kind of responsibility Komisarek was hoping to get when he arrived here last season. Beauchemin also joined Kaberle on the first power-play unit.
Toronto came into the second period leading 1-0 and on the power play. It even killed most of a tripping call to Luke Schenn on Ovechkin. But after the slumping Mike Green went down low to pop the tying goal, the Leafs suddenly came unglued. Unfamiliar partners Kaberle and Brett Lebda had momentary confusion coming back in their zone and Kaberle didn’t ride out Boyd Gordon enough to stop a centring pass to Brooks Laich.
Then Jonas Gustvasson had a flub, distracted by Tomas Fleischmann and not closing his pads before the latter tipped a John Carlson point shot through.
But after killing a late second period call against Schenn, Kaberle let the fourth line forwards block Michal Neuvirth for his first of the year, while Komisarek sent Versteeg away from his first in 10 games.
Bozak ended his own one-goal blemish off a Kaberle power-play shot on goal, but a late Lebda penalty allowed Alex Semin to tie it at 14:22.
Toronto scored what has become a rare first-period goal, thanks to some carpet bombing forechecking by Clarke MacArthur and Mikhail Grabovski. That enabled NIkolai Kulemin to get loose, and exhibiting the patience that Toronto scorers have seemingly lost, he spun from backhand to forehand and beat a confused Neuvirth far side.
The decision not to put Marlies’ call-up Holzer into the lineup had as much to do with jet lag as not wanting to throw him to the wolves in Ovechkin’s house. The Marlies had just landed to San Antonio, Texas, on Tuesday night for their first road trip and Holzer had gone to find a restaurant when coach Dallas Eakins called him. Holzer re-packed his bag and caught a 7:30 a.m. flight, but with veteran Brett Lebda available, coach Ron Wilson went with experience.
“I asked Dallas (Eakins) who deserved the call-up and that’s the name he gave me,” Burke said.
There is more experience with Jeff Finger, but that massive $3.5 million US ticket he carries remains a huge impediment, as the Leafs would be on the hook for a chunk of it if another team claimed Finger before the call-up went through.
“You can’t replace Dion,” said Schenn before the game. “He’s huge in the dressing room for us and gives his all in all areas of the ice.
“We’ll have to stick together all over the ice. It’s a young season, but anytime your captain goes down, other guys need to play better and we have a pretty deep back end.
“The talk in training camp was how strong it was, Now we’ll be put to the test. We can’t control the timing. That’s the way the game goes. Players go down on your team and across the league and you just have to deal with it.”