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Leafs strike early, never look back in win over Caps

Leafs strike early, never look back in win over Caps

The Caps entered Toronto on the second leg of a back-to-back and the Maple Leafs certainly looked like the fresher team, jumping on the Caps early on their way to a 4-2 win on Saturday night.

How it happened: Toronto opened the scoring less than three minutes into the game as Matt Martin beat Braden Holtby on the first shot he faced. Martin snuck in behind the defense and Mitch Marner found him right on the tape with a pass to spring the breakaway. The Leafs added to their lead in the second period as James Van Riemsdyk struck on the power play. Van Riemsdyk and Nikita Soshnikov collapsed down low on the crease and had all the time in the world to work with as John Carlson went down too early to block the shot. Van Riemsdyk was finally able to chip it past Holtby.

The coffin nail came just 22 seconds in the third. Connor Brown pickpocketed Dmitry Orlov in the defensive zone and fed Zach Hyman in the slot. Holtby made the initial save and another to deny Matt Hunwick, but Auston Matthews finally finished off the play with the rebound goal. Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson finally got the Caps on the board in the third period, but a goal by Nazem Kadri and a strong effort from goalie Frederik Andersen were enough to put the game away.

What it means: The loss drops the Caps to 5-2-1 this season in back-to-back games and snaps a five-game win streak for the Caps over the Leafs that stretched back to January of 2015. Washington is now 4-2-0 against Canadian teams this season and 4-1-0 against the Atlantic Division.

Heads up: Head coach Barry Trotz showed that he may be the toughest head coach in the NHL as he took a puck to the head in the very first shift of the game. Off the opening face off, Nikita Soshnikov redirected a puck into the Caps bench, hitting Trotz. You can watch the play here.

Slow start: The Caps have dramatically improved their starts this season, but that was not evident on Saturday. Martin’s goal came just 2:35 into the game. The Caps had scored first in 17 of 20 games heading into Saturday’s contest including their last eight. The best thing you could say about the first period is that the Caps trailed only 1-0, considering they were outshot 15-6 and took three penalties.

Powerless: Despite the rough start for the Caps, they still found themselves trailing only 2-0 midway through the second period with a golden opportunity to get right back into the game. After taking the first four penalties of the game, the Caps had three power plays in the second period including 24 seconds of a two-man advantage. Despite generating eight shots on goal, the Caps walked away empty handed as the Leafs were able to keep the score at 2-0 through 40 minutes. The Caps finished 0 for 4 for the game.

Third period struggles continue: The Caps have identified the third period to be a problem of late. In their last three games, the Caps allowed five goals. It cost them against Columbus and nearly cost them against St. Louis. Heading into the third period Saturday, the Caps trailed 2-0 and needed a strong showing in the final frame. It took Toronto just 22 seconds to score and essentially end any hope the Caps had of getting back into the game. Finishing strong is something this team desperately needs to work on.

Uh-oh: Matt Niskanen took a shift in the opening minute of the third period. That proved to be his last shift of the game. The defenseman went to the locker room and did not return to the bench. According to the team, he suffered a lower-body injury and would be re-evaluated Sunday.

Look ahead: The Caps will get a few days off before hosting the New York Islanders on Thursday. They then head to Tampa for their first meeting with the Lightning this season.

RELATED: Connolly's role emerging

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Backstrom the catalyst behind Capitals' trip to the edge of advancement

Backstrom the catalyst behind Capitals' trip to the edge of advancement

WASHINGTON — It had been nine years since Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom last had a four-point game in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

That was a different time, an era when Backstrom and his teammates too often faltered under the weight of enormous expectations.  That’s all gone now. There is a Stanley Cup banner hanging in the rafters at Capital One Arena to prove it. Now they can all just play. 

With teammate T.J. Oshie hurt and likely out for the season, Backstrom continued to raise his own game in Game 5 of a first-round playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes. He had two goals and two assists in a 6-0 thrashing as Washington took a 3-2 series lead and pushed the Hurricanes to the brink of elimination. Alex Ovechkin added a goal and two assists.  

Backstrom’s last four-point playoff games was April 17, 2010. He had a hat trick that night and scored the game-winning goal in overtime. 

“That was probably Montreal, right?” Backstrom said before confessing. “Yeah, Ovi told me. He remembers everything.”

Those were darker days. The Capitals blew a 3-1 series lead against Montreal that year and maybe the best team of the Ovechkin era went out in the first round despite winning the Presidents’ Trophy. No wonder Backstrom needed help remembering. 

There is no such issue this season. The 31-year-old Swede is carrying the Capitals, who are one game away from advancing. It was his second two-goal game of the series. He has five total, which matches his career high for one playoff series set in 2010 against the Canadiens. He and Ovechkin, who has seven points in the series (three goals, four assists) set a tone and their teammates followed. 

"In all areas, too,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “Obviously they got on the point sheet, but their play away from the puck, on the forecheck, supporting each other, they're real tough to play against when they play like that and I thought they've been doing a great job all playoffs, too.”

Backstrom’s five goals matched what he had all last postseason when the Caps won the Cup. He missed games because of a broken finger, but still played in 20 and had five goals and 18 assists. He matched his total output of eight points in 2009 against Pittsburgh and 2018 against Columbus. His career best is again that Montreal series when he had nine points. Not that he cares about that now. None of the Caps do. If the production leads to wins and advancing to the second round, that’s all that matters.  

“It’s good for the confidence I think. But it’s going to be a different game in Carolina,” Backstrom said. “We’ve just got to regroup here and move forward. That was just a 3-2 lead. Toughest one is the last one. We haven’t been happy with the way we’ve played in Carolina so far. Let’s change that.”


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Braden Holtby’s new franchise record overshadowed by blowout win and he’s just fine with that

Braden Holtby’s new franchise record overshadowed by blowout win and he’s just fine with that

WASHINGTON – On a night in which the Capitals erupted for six goals against the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead, goalie Braden Holtby’s contributions were largely overshadowed. Nicklas Backstrom scored his fourth and fifth goals of the playoffs in a four-point night while Alex Ovechkin added a goal and three points of his own. Even Nic Dowd got into the mix as he scored Washington’s first penalty shot goal in playoff history.

When a team wins a game 6-0, it is easy to discount the contribution of the goalie and assume the offense carried the team. That was not the case on Saturday as Holtby played a pivotal role in Washington taking back control of its first-round series.

And he set a franchise record doing it.

With 30 saves, Holtby recorded his seventh career playoff shutout passing Olie Kolzig’s previous franchise record of six. Holtby now stands alone with the most postseason shutouts in team history.

But you won’t see him celebrating too hard.

“It means I’m getting old,” Holtby said.

Holtby may be the only goalie in the world who does not seem to care about shutouts. He has been consistent on this point throughout his career, always saying that shutouts only matter because it means he helped put the team in a position to win.

When it comes to individual accolades, however, Holtby is just not interested.

When asked what holding Carolina scoreless on Saturday did for his confidence, Holtby was blunt.

"Nothing,” he said. “It's a win. We regroup, we know they're going to come harder next game and we'll focus on that."

As focused as Holtby seemed to be after the game, was just as focused in it on Saturday as he turned in his best performance of the series. Despite the final score, the game was close halfway through with Washington clinging to a one-goal lead. Holtby was brilliant between the pipes, however, especially in the second period as Washington faced three straight power plays. He turned aside 15 shots in the middle frame alone to help the Caps keep their lead and eventually run away with the win.

“Our goaltender was tremendous,” Todd Reirden said. “Those things, if you can have the special teams and your goaltender at that type of a level then you're going to give yourself a real good chance to have success.”

The offense stole the headlines after Saturday’s win, but that’s a result the Caps do not get without Holtby’s record-setting performance in net.