Leafs drop fourth in a row against Capitals

Toronto Maple Leafs versus the Washington Capitals January 10, 2014. (Getty/AFP files)

Toronto Maple Leafs versus the Washington Capitals January 10, 2014. (Getty/AFP files)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:58 PM ET

WASHINGTON - The Maple Leafs didn’t win, but neither did they quit.

And with a growing chant for a change behind the bench, that will buy some time for Randy Carlyle.

“We showed desperation, we showed we care when we put out heart in it,” Carlyle said. “There is more in that room than what has been displayed and that’s what’s frustrating everybody and (players) are frustrated also.”

There was a lot to like about the Leafs effort here Friday, a back-and-forth thriller against the Capitals that came down to late in the third period. Having endured enough of their Walking Dead sequels, which had resulted in three horrid losses by an 18-5 total, the Leafs almost took a point out of the Verizon Centre before falling 3-2. With the net empty, they forced several faceoffs in the Washington end and out-shot the home team 35-34.

Galvanized by Jonathan Bernier’s goaltending, Toronto was much harder on the puck and kept the Caps’ highest-ranked power play off the board in four chances. But at the end of the fourth minor to David Clarkson, a weak Carl Gunnarsson clearing pass was cut off and fed to Toronto-born Joel Ward. Toronto, which fell out of the Eastern Conference eighth and final playoff seed the night before in a 6-1 thumping in Carolina remains stuck in the pack.

Now 0-4 in a string of games against Metropolitan Division teams that once looked like a soft spot on the schedule, the Leafs are down to facing the New Jersey Devils on Sunday to salvage something.

The Leafs took the lead on Washington in the first minute of the third, Phil Kessel’s first in five games and a badly needed one from their leading scorer in troubled times. He got lucky when defenceman Karl Alzner tipped his shot past goalie Michal Neuvirth. But the hockey gods gave it back a few minutes later.

Instead of an easy clear when a Caps forward broke his stick upon entering the Leafs zone, Cody Franson couldn’t tie up Nicklas Backstrom, whose wild thrust wide of the net struck Jay McClement’s skate and went in the open side.

McClement, one of the hardest working Leafs through thick and thin, has been mystified why the Leafs had lost their mojo so badly since the Winter Classic.

“There’s no excuse why we don’t compete every night,” he said before Friday’s game. “As a pro, all of us have to look in the mirror. That’s something that has to be there every night. You won’t win every night, but the effort has to be there.”

Toronto has not made the jump from being a playoff team last year and had regressed.

“At the start of the year, we felt we had an even better team,” McClement said. “We still feel we do, but we’re not playing like it.”

The Leafs, who made their league-leading fight total a vital part of last season’s calling card, had two second period scraps, both involving their fourth liners. Tom Wilson bested Carter Ashton and John Erskine got the last swing in to topple Colton Orr. Orr was avenging Erskine’s roughing up of Dion Phaneuf, which included a gloved fist that accidentally struck linesman Mark Shewchyk and resulted in a double minor.

Mikhail Grabovski, who along with Alex Steen is haunting the Leafs this season, set up Alex Ovechkin’s league-best 32nd of the year in the second period. It was another of the Leafs recent foul-ups trying to exit the zone with the opposition in their face, making it 27 for Ovechkin in 32 games against the Leafs.

But the Leafs came back a few minutes later, when Grabovski was in the box for tripping. James van Riemsdyk supplied his first since the Winter Classic, a short-side tip of Kessel’s shot past Neuvirth. Collecting his seventh point in six games was Tyler Bozak.

After unsatisfactory results bringing Mark Fraser back in the lineup on Thursday, Jake Gardiner returned in a rotating mix of six, while the forwards were given another chance after Thursday’s sickly effort.

The Caps created some sticky moments for Jonathan Bernier in the early minutes, but his rebound glove-hand reflexes and rebound control were equal to the task. Toronto did a fine job killing a Nikolai Kulemin minor against the NHL’s best power play, crowding Ovechkin, with Jay McClement and Phaneuf winning a battle of wills to push pucks out at the blue line.

But Toronto should have peppered a rusty Neuvirth early, in his first start since Nov. 22. And its first man advantage nearly ended in disaster when a Kessel pass back to Phaneuf went into a void at centre ice. It took every ounce of steam from Phaneuf to catch Troy Brouwer and halt a second short-handed goal in as many games. It typified how fortunes have turned against Toronto in recent games.

“Sometimes you look back and can’t believe what happened,” Bozak said before the game. “You worked hard (with nothing to show).”

Washington coach Adam Oates didn’t disguise his pre-game strategy, to exploit the shaky confidence of the Leafs, mush them on the forecheck and re-create conditions for the 50-shot bonanza the Caps had in Toronto last November in an overtime loss. But Washington also played on Thursday night, and though it won in Tampa Bay there was travel involved. That began a six-games-in-nine-nights marathon.


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