For a team that’s struggled to string together much of anything positive in the last two months, the Capitals showed signs of breaking out of their slump against one of the league’s best Monday night.
But every time they had a chance to take advantage, they made a few self-inflicted mistakes and, in the end, it cost them on the scoreboard in a 5-3 loss to the Leafs at Capital One Arena.
The Capitals played well for large stretches of the night, and were stellar in a few areas, but it wasn’t enough to overcome a few missed chances that ended up haunting them by the end of the game.
“I think once we found our game, we realized how to kind of tilt the ice and they didn’t get much,” Tom Wilson said. “But when you’re playing a team like that, you give them a little space there, they’re going to make plays. Little bit of a four-on-four there at the end of the game and they find a way to get one. It’s a tough one, but we’ll just keep moving forward here."
But of all the mistakes that cost Washington, the final few minutes will hurt the most.
With time winding down, the Capitals couldn’t get control of the puck behind their own net. The puck ended up on Justin Holl’s stick after a John Tavares forecheck, then a wide open Rasmus Sandin scored to put the Leafs up 4-3 with just 3:23 left to play.
“They stripped a couple pucks and were able to keep the puck in the zone and our guys got a little bit tired, but I don’t think it was anything that they did that we didn’t expect,” Conor Sheary said of the final goal. “I think it was maybe a little bit, you start running around a little bit when you get tired and they changed and got fresh guys on the ice and we just lost our coverage.”
Washington put pressure on Toronto in the final few moments, but it simply didn’t have enough time to get the equalizer. That felt cruel, in a way, as there was a lot to like about the way the Capitals played for the full 60 minutes.
Their penalty kill was excellent and didn’t allow the league’s top-ranked power play one single shot in eight minutes of power play time. The Capitals’ power play scored for the second-straight game and at five-on-five, they went toe-to-toe with one of the league’s best for the first 40 minutes.
The Capitals' mistakes, as it turned out, couldn’t be overcome.
“You're looking at a game where it's tight,” head coach Peter Laviolette said. “I thought we generated a lot, we didn't give up much until the end and then we let up two goals towards the end of the first period and that's not good. Good fight to come back in the game and you get it to a point where you're pushing down the stretch and you just got to keep moving forward.”
The problems started early, once again, for the Capitals when a chance to control the puck in their own end was met with a Mitch Marner stick-lift and backhand pass to Michael Bunting in front of the net to put the Leafs up 1-0. It was the third-straight game the Capitals fell behind first and the second-straight game that it happened in the first three minutes.
That goal seemed to turn the tide for Washington, though, as it threw shot after shot toward Toronto goalie Petr Mrazek, who was seemingly on the brink of disaster time and time again in the first period. A Sheary deflection goal finally tied the game late in the first period, but the issues still persisted.
“I think we obviously play better when you can get a lead and you can jump on a team,” Sheary said. “Especially at home, you take away their momentum and you come out and you get the first one and you start feeling good about your game and you can turn it over and maybe they get frustrated and they’re maybe chasing the game a little bit.”
The loss left the Capitals at 4-6 in the month of February and 8-12-2 since 2022 began. Their play has been inconsistent, and that’s part of what made Monday’s defeat so frustrating.
"There's frustration,” Laviolette said. “I think you're probably angry more than anything else. It's our building and we're not getting it done. It's got to be better."