On Wednesday morning, Caps defenseman John Carlson acknowledged his team's early struggles on home ice this season. "We haven't been good at home, so that's going to be a big thing for us," he said, ahead of Washington's meeting with the Toronto Maple Leafs. "We've always been a good home team, and it's something where we want to carry on that tradition. It's been unacceptable at home - our efforts - and we'll look to change that tonight."
Hours later, Carlson led the charge as the Caps earned their first victory in four games on home ice, a 4-3 come-from-behind win over the Leafs. After Washington fell down early, Carlson set up its first two goals, and then scored what would prove to be the game-winner on a 5-on-3 power play in the second period.
"We want to win at home," says Carlson. "That's the biggest thing. We did that tonight."
Once again, the Caps started off inauspiciously, yielding a goal against on the opposition's first shot on goal of the game for the second time in as many games and the third time in eight games this season. Even worse, it was a shorthanded strike that came at the end of a tail end of a Washington power play that failed to generate as much as a shot attempt to that point of the man advantage.
Toronto forced a turnover in neutral ice and quickly turned up ice in transition, with Trevor Moore carrying down the left side. Moore carried down to almost the goal line before centering for Kasperi Kapanen, who scored from the top of the paint at 4:37.
The Leafs doubled their lead just after the midpoint of the first. Justin Holl blocked a Carlson shot, and Kapanen collected it and sent Ilya Mikheyev into Washington ice with a step on Caps defender Jonas Siegenthaler. Mikheyev beat Ilya Samsonov to make it a 2-0 game at 10:58.
Late in the period, the Caps got on the board with a rush goal to cut the Leafs' lead in half. Carlson took a feed from Garnet Hathaway in neutral ice, gained the zone, pulled up, and issued a perfect cross-ice feed to Jakub Vrana, whose one-timer from the right dot blazed past Michael Hutchinson at 18:59.
Video: TOR@WSH: Vrana pots Carlson's feed from the circle
Early in the second, Washington wrested control of the contest from the Leafs with a lusty offensive outburst. First, Evgeny Kuznetsov worked a give-and-go with Carlson, taking the puck from the latter at the Toronton line and driving to the net. Kuznetsov waited out Hutchinson and put a backhander behind him at 5:07 of the second, tying the game at 2-2.
Eleven seconds later, Washington had its first lead of the homestand. T.J. Oshie beat Morgan Rielly to the left wing corner in a puck race, and he whirled and whipped a pass to the front for Nicklas Backstrom. Backstrom fired from the inside of the left circle, scoring to make it 3-2 at 5:18.
Seconds later, the Leafs put a couple of bullets into their feet. First, Rielly took his second tripping minor of the game. Nine seconds after that, Cody Ceci - Toronto's most frequently deployed penalty-killing defenseman - flung the puck over the glass, incurring a delay of game call, and giving the Caps a two-man advantage for 111 seconds.
Even down two men, the Leafs were determined not to let Alex Ovechkin score from the office, as their lone forward crept up high to take away the possibility of a Carlson feed to the captain. Not to worry, kid. Carlson and Ovechkin worked a reversal of roles, the latter teeing it up for the former, who scored on a one-timer from the left dot office at 6:25.
"We started good," says Leafs coach Mike Babcock. "I thought we were set up good, I thought we were playing well. We had a couple sort-out problems at the start of the second period, we took penalties, we knocked one over the glass, and then we spent the rest of the night chasing the game."
Video: Carlson, Backstrom lead Caps past Maple Leafs, 4-3
Late in the second, the Caps lost defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler and forward Richard Panik when the two collided on a defensive zone sequence. Both left the game and did not return, leaving Washington with a short bench in the third as the Leafs made a strong late push to get back in the game.
With less than three minutes left, the Leafs turned an Ovechkin turnover at the Washington line into a goal, Jake Muzzin feeding John Tavares to make it 4-3 with 2:33 left. Toronto put a lot of heat on the Caps the rest of the way, but Washington blocked all three Leafs shot tries in that span to help Samsonov improve to 3-1-0 on the season.
"I thought we tried to crawl our way back into the game," says Babcock. "I overplayed guys in the third. I mean, you're chasing the game, and in the end we didn't have enough to get it done. So it was disappointing, because we thought we were set up pretty good. But the bottom line is we've got to find a way to play better on these back-to-backs."