Washington finished its five-game road trip through North America with a flourish on Tuesday in Toronto, taking a 4-1 win from the Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre to end its journey with an impressive 4-1-0 record.
Philipp Grubauer made 27 saves to earn his 12th win of the season, and the Capitals got at least a goal in every period to move within a point of clinching the league's best record for the second season in a row. Four different Capitals found the back of the net as the Caps turned in a complete 60-minute performance against a weary Leafs team that played on the road a night earlier.
Video: Coach Trotz talks after a 4-1 win in Toronto
"I thought that we came out and played with purpose," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "I thought that we set the tone right off the bat. We played with a little more detail and purpose, and I thought we stayed with what we were doing pretty well the whole night."
Washington took a 1-0 lead late in the first on a pretty forechecking goal. Andre Burakovsky beat Toronto defenseman Matt Hunwick to the puck behind the Toronto net, chipping it toward the left wing corner where Lars Eller collected it and started a cycle, feeding Brett Connolly as the latter came down the wall. Connolly went back to Burakovsky, who put it on a tee for Eller, who pounded a one-timer past Leafs goalie Curtis McElhinney on the stick side at 14:34.
Video: WSH@TOR: Eller beats McElhinney on heavy one-timer
"It was big," says Eller, of scoring the game's first goal, "but the biggest thing was the way we came out, even if we hadn't gotten the first goal. I felt really comfortable about the way we were playing. We came out with [Alex Ovechkin] setting the tone on the first shift, we came out with the right intensity, the right attitude and it really set the standard for us for the game. We played well offensively, and we played smart defensively, too."
After thoroughly stymying the Leafs offensively in the first, the Caps had a few minor adventures in their own end early in the second, but they were able to protect their slim lead. At the exact midpoint of the middle frame, the Caps doubled that advantage on a power play.
Unable to generate the looks they wanted with their typical power play setup, the Caps changed horses in midstream to good effect. Ovechkin moved up and down on the left side, looking to create a seam through which he could receive a pass. When that didn't achieve the desired effect, he and Kevin Shattenkirk traded places, Ovechkin taking the center point.
Video: WSH@TOR: Shattenkirk nets PPG for first as a Capital
Seconds later, Backstrom fed Shattenkirk through a wide-open seam and Shattenkirk cranked a one-timer into a wide-open net to make it 2-0.
"[Ovechkin] was looking for that seam, and he kind of got pushed down low," recounts Shattenkirk. "And Nicky [Backstrom] and I were just playing a little back-and-forth, and we had been practicing that a little bit, and working on some movement.
"When I saw that we were a little stagnant, I just kind of yelled down to [Ovechkin] for a switch, and when he comes up top, it's a matter of them just trying to figure out what they want to do. You see it in their eyes; they're trying to figure it out on the fly. And [Ovechkin] makes some good plays up there. He doesn't just bury his head and shoot it. Nicky obviously makes a great pass [to me]. I was going to the back door and I kind of just stopped and pulled back, and he was able to time it perfectly."
Shattenkirk's creative first goal as a member of the Capitals proved to be the game-winner.
Video: Caps players talk after a 4-1 win in Toronto
With the Maple Leafs on a power play late in the second, Grubauer made a key stop on Toronto's Tyler Bozak from the slot to preserve Washington's two-goal cushion.
Caps defenseman Nate Schmidt was a late fill-in for John Carlson, who was slated to play but was unable to go at the last minute because of a lower body injury. Schmidt stepped in to assume Carlson's usual spot on the right side of a pairing with Karl Alzner.
Playing for the first time since March 14, Schmidt showed no signs of rust and appeared to fit in seamlessly from the start. In the third period, he made his presence felt on the scoresheet, tallying for the second time in as many games.
Justin Williams kept the puck in the Toronto zone with a neat pirouette play along the left wing half wall, sending it down to the corner for Connolly. Spotting a late-arriving Schmidt lurking high in the zone, Connolly authored a perfect backhand feed, and Schmidt ripped a wrist shot past McElhinney to make it 3-0 at 8:11 of the third.
Video: WSH@TOR: Schmidt wires home Connolly's dish
"There were a couple of times where I had to go look at the board to see what we were doing in some of the situations," admits Schmidt. "But it was a good time for me to get back in there. It's been a little while. I guess it was a pretty seamless transition. Our guys were really great at helping me along, especially when you've been out for so long."
Late in the third, local boy Tom Wilson scored on a breakaway in front of the folks in his hometown to make it 4-1. Jay Beagle carried out of the Caps' zone and passed to Daniel Winnik, who spotted Wilson with some space. Winnik lofted a pass ahead, and Wilson caught up to it, skated in, deked, and tucked the puck through McElhinney's legs to make it a 4-0 game at 16:44.
"I'll take them as they come for sure, but it's always fun to score, no lie," says Wilson, who has now scored three of his 27 career goals at Air Canada Centre. "It's fun to score in front of friends and family. I love it here and kind of grew up here, so it's fun to go out there in that building and score a goal."
Video: WSH@TOR: Wilson beats McElhinney five-hole on break
Grubauer came within 68 seconds of recording his fourth shutout of the season, but Toronto's Mitch Marner spoiled the whitewash bid with a goal from the doorstep on a Maple Leafs power play, accounting for the 4-1 final.
Their season-long road trip now in the rear view, the Caps come home to host the rested and waiting New York Rangers on Wednesday night at Verizon Center. For the Capitals, Wednesday's game will be their sixth in nine nights.