JVR leads Leafs past punchless Capitals
ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency
|Maple Leaf players celebrate a James van Riemsdyk goal in the first period against the Capitals in Washington on Tuesday night. (Getty Images)
If the Leafs took the time to analyze the NHL schedule before the season began, this one stood out like Clarke MacArthur’s sore pinky.
Playing a rested Capitals on the back end of back-to-backs had to look daunting for Randy Carlyle’s young squad, one of those trouble spots in a potential week from hell.
Like so much about this goofy lockout-shortened season, we have come to expect the unexpected and Tuesday night at the Verizon Center was full of examples in a 3-2 Leafs win.
For starters, the miserable Capitals record of 2-7-1 is officially not a mirage, a slide that could have them on the ropes before long.
Despite protestations from rookie coach Adam Oates that his team was getting it together, they looked anything but with brutal play in their own end and little of the Alex Ovechkin led punch we’ve seen so much of in past years.
On the other side, Leafs defenceman Korbinian Holzer jumped ahead of Phil Kessel in the goal-scoring race with the first of his career, but the real offensive story once again came from the stick of new forward James van Riemsdyk.
One goal from hustle and another from solid finish gave him six in 10 games, well ahead of his success rate in his three previous NHL seasons. The win was the Leafs’ second over the Capitals in six days and broke a 5-0-1 run for the team in Washington.
With the absence from the lineup of Joffrey Lupul and the goal less streak from Kessel, the Leafs are in desperate need of production and van Riemsdyk and Matt Frattin are the only thing close.
With their busy schedule, the Leafs were compelled to give Ben Scrivens some action this week and James Reimer’s backup responded with a solid, if at-times erratic performance for his second win of the season. With the Leafs playing on fumes in the third, Scrivens had to make a number of saves to preserve the win as the Leafs returned to a .500 record at 5-5.
After a home loss on Monday to the Carolina Hurricanes, there was justifiable concern around the Leafs that this could be a truly miserable week. Back-to-back losses at the Air Canada Centre — in which they scored one-goal combined — dumped their home record to 1-4.
With three road games in the following night and facing a rested Capitals side, there was potential for trouble. Except these Capitals are reeling, playing even sloppier in their own end than the Leafs have of late.
That potential evaporated in quick order when van Riemsdyk staked them to a 2-0 lead 12:35 into the game. The opener was on the kind of play that has been driving the Caps crazy this year, a brutal mishandling of the puck behind the net by skittish goaltender Michal Neuvirth. When defenceman Tom Poti couldn’t decide whether to poop or get off the pot, van Riemsdyk swept in and grabbed it, depositing it in the empty net.
The Toronto forward’s sixth of the season and second of the game came when a broken-stick shot by Cody Franson landed on his stick at the side of the net and the former Flyer buried it easily.
Kessel’s struggles took a new twist, leading directly to the Caps’ opening goal by Marcus Johansson. Trying to make a move in the neutral zone, Kessel turned over the puck and then was nailed for holding, putting Washington on the power play.
The Caps narrowed the score to 3-2 when Nazem Kadri was sent off for steamrolling Neuvirth and Mike Ribeiro connected on the power play with 13:12 remaining. The Caps had pressure
As for his offensive game, it was a typical of Kessel’s season of frustration so far. He created chances and was on the ice for all three of Toronto’s goals. But the touch is still missing as we saw early in the third period on a two-on-one when he looked off van Riemsdyk and rifled a wrister high glove side, a puck that was easily snared by Neuvirth.
Arguably the busiest week of the schedule continues in Winnipeg on Thursday night and in Montreal on Saturday.