WASHINGTON – The Toronto Maple Leafs are in the midst of a stretch of five games against five of the best Eastern Conference teams in eight days. Two games in, the Maple Leafs have two comeback victories to their credit, but this one Monday against the Washington Capitals was considerably more improbable.
Mikhail Grabovski started Toronto's rally from three goals down in the final period and finished it with the lone shootout tally in a 5-4 victory in front of 18,398 stunned patrons at Verizon Center.
"It gets so overused, 'Oh, a character win,' – that is such a bad cliché," Toronto coach Ron Wilson said. "We're just … we're desperate now. We're trying to score and throwing everything at them. … We never hung our heads on the bench. We just kept pushing."
Toronto had lost four in a row, including an embarrassing 5-0 defeat by Edmonton at Air Canada Centre, before embarking on this tough streak of games. The Maple Leafs remain in last place in the Northeast Division, but comeback wins against the Capitals and Boston Bruins could spark a turnaround.
The Maple Leafs schedule does not ease up – the next three games are against new League-leader Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and division-leader Montreal.
"It's two small steps in the right direction," said goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, who made 32 saves and stopped all three Washington shooters – including a spectacular stick save on Mathieu Perreault. "We can't be happy with just this but it shows a lot of character coming back in games and working hard no matter what the scoreboard [says]. That's huge. We just have to keep going."
It was the third loss in a row for the Capitals, who had built a 4-1 advantage through 40 minutes before falling apart in the final period. Washington yielded a 4-2 lead in the third period when these two teams met here Nov. 4, but the Capitals were able to rescue the second point with a shootout victory.
The loss also proved to be costly to Washington's defense corps. Jeff Schultz blocked a shot with his hand and Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said he is expected to miss 4-6 weeks with a broken thumb.
"We quit playing in our zone," Boudreau said. "We just wanted to play safe. You can't just allow a team to come into our zone all night long. When they were in our zone, our positioning – by both defensemen and forwards – was really bad."
Added Toronto forward Colby Armstrong: "We got down and kind of the same thing happened here last time and we battled back. I don't think we played our best game for sure – we came in and stole two points. We'll take the best parts of the game tonight and move forward."
Grabovski began the comeback for the Maple Leafs 4:16 into the final period. His one-timer from Tomas Kaberle went through Michal Neuvirth's legs as he was coming across the crease. It was Grabovski's sixth goal of the season, and as Boudreau alluded to bad positioning, came right from the spot where Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin should have been to prevent the chance.
Tim Brent brought Toronto within a goal with 2:23 left in the third. He directed a Kaberle shot from the top of the zone past Neuvirth with his back to the net.
Clarke MacArthur completed the Maple Leafs' comeback 59 seconds later. He was all alone near the right post and swept the puck into the net for his ninth of the campaign and second of the night to send the contest to overtime.
"Washington got a little sloppy towards the end," Wilson said. "I think they thought the game was over but we kept on playing. We were able to take advantage of some of their miscues in their end."
The loss ruined what had been a great night for Perreault, who had his first two-goal contest of his 25-game NHL career. Recalled earlier in the day from the American Hockey League, Perreault had an impact for the Capitals on his first shift.
He deflected a shot from the left point by Tom Poti past Gustavsson at 2:55 of the opening period.
"Every time I get called up it seems like the first game I'm flying," Perreault said. "Now it's just a matter of doing it every time."
MacArthur leveled the score at 11:47 at the end of a Toronto power play. The Capitals failed to clear the puck, and the MacArthur made a nifty play to get the puck past defenseman John Carlson in the slot and then snapped a shot past Neuvirth for his eighth goal of the season. MacArthur was one of the League’s surprises when he had eight goals in his first 11 goals, but that was his first marker in 15 contests since then.
Mike Knuble put Washington back in front with an extra-man tally of his own a little more than three minutes later. Knuble's first shot from the slot was blocked, but the loose puck came back to him and he put it in the top right corner at 14:58 for his fifth of the campaign.
Perreault added his second of the contest 6:46 into the middle period. Brooks Laich sent a pass through the slot to him just inside the left faceoff dot and Perreault had plenty of time to pick his spot for a wrist shot with Alexander Semin providing a screen in front of Gustavsson.
"He brought great energy tonight, like we thought," Boudreau said. "He made plays, like we thought. If some of the other forwards had played with as much energy as him we wouldn’t have been in the situation we were in."
Ovechkin pushed Washington’s lead to three at 13:50. Poti sent him a pass along the left wall near the offensive blue line and Toronto defenseman Keith Aulie gave him too much space to blister a shot from the top of the faceoff circle that was vintage Ovechkin.
It was Ovechkin's 12th of the season and second in as many games after going nine contests without a tally. He missed the net three times with hard shots in the first period, but found his accuracy in the second.
"I don't know what happened the last 10 minutes," Ovechkin said. "It started with our line when Grabovski scored. … Losing a game like this is pretty bad for us. It’s a lesson and it’s good we have another game soon."