January 3 vs. Toronto Maple Leafs at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7
Toronto Maple Leafs 17-12-7
Washington Capitals 22-9-5
Washington's three-game homestand continues on Tuesday when the Toronto Maple Leafs make their lone visit to Verizon Center this season.
The Caps were the only team in the league scheduled to play on both New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, and they swept that set of back-to-backs, winning 6-2 over the Devils in New Jersey on Saturday and edging Ottawa 2-1 at Verizon Center on Sunday in the homestand opener.
After falling behind 1-0 in the second period against the Senators on Sunday, the Caps got goals from two unlikely sources to sweep the weekend set. Karl Alzner netted his third of the season with 19.5 seconds left in the second to tie the game at 1-1, and Taylor Chorney tallied his first of the season and just the third of his NHL career early in the third.
Chorney's goal came in just the seventh game he has played for Washington this season, of the 36 the Capitals have played to date.
"You see tonight a lot of commitment, and our [defensemen] don't get a lot of credit sometimes," said Caps coach Barry Trotz afterwards. "And tonight, two guys who don't score a lot of goals were the difference. That's sort of how we think of our team. Everybody is an important piece, even [Chorney] who's not always in the lineup. He comes as a true pro, works his butt off every day, doesn't complain, gets in the lineup and contributes. And that's what you look for. The guys love him, and those are the reasons why sometimes a guy like Taylor Chorney is so valuable to your hockey team, because you don't know who is going to go down, and he comes in and does a real good job. And he's done it all year."
The Capitals are now 6-0-1 in the seven games for which Chorney has dressed this season.
There was much more to Sunday's win than those two goals. Braden Holtby continued his run of excellence in goal, stopping 23 of 24 shots. A dozen different Caps skaters helped him out by blocking at least one shot in the game, and Washington ended the night with a single-game season high of 23 blocked shots.
"We knew that's what we were going to have to do," says Holtby, "especially with our forwards because our [defensemen] were going to have to play a little looser with [Ottawa's] skill in front. You saw some big blocks from our forwards. The commitment has never been an issue for us; it's just the execution. And we're executing really, really good right now."
Early in the season, the Caps weren't blocking many shots. They've eclipsed 20 twice now this season, with the other game being a 4-3 win over the Bruins on Dec. 7 when they blocked 21.
"I've been noticing that a little bit more lately, that we've been blocking a lot more," says Alzner. "For the first little bit of the season, for whatever reason, they just weren't hitting us. We thought we were in lanes, but we weren't. They were getting through and getting to Holts. For the last little bit, guys have been finding a way to knock them down and sacrifice. You realize once you get hit with one that it's not that bad. You get hit with a couple more and it just starts to flow after that."
The critical point of the game came several minutes after Chorney's goal when a pair of simultaneous Washington minor penalties resulted in the Sens having a full two-minute, two-man advantage. Going into Sunday's game, the Caps had faced two two-man advantage situations all season for a combined total of just 51 seconds.
Not only did the Caps kill the entire two minutes without incident, they limited the Sens to a mere three shot attempts and just one shot on goal during that span.
"That's about as good as a five-on-three can go, really, for two minutes with that amount of skill," says Holtby. "Our guys did great, getting the puck down and the clears, reading their body position and such and really battling it out. It was a big point in the game."
Tuesday's tilt with Toronto is the Caps' second meeting with the Leafs this season. Back on Nov. 26, a weary Caps team finished off a set of back-to-back games and a set of three games in four nights - wrapped around the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday - with a lackluster performance in a 4-2 loss to the Leafs that wasn't as close as that score would indicate.
Toronto comes to town on the heels of a thrilling 5-4 overtime victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday in the NHL's Centennial Classic. The Leafs squandered a 4-1 third-period lead in that game, but came back to win it in overtime on rookie sensation Auston Matthews' 20th goal of the season.
The Leafs have missed the playoffs for three straight seasons and 10 of the last 11, and they last won a playoff series in 2004. But this year's model is making a push for a postseason berth, fueled by a youth movement. The Maple Leafs' last three first-round draft choices - Matthews (2016), Mitch Marner (2015) and William Nylander (2014) - are all key contributors to the Toronto attack. Those three players are three of the Leafs' top four scorers this season.
Matthews scored four goals on opening night in his NHL debut and is leading all NHL rookies in scoring with 32 points, while Marner (27 points) and Nylander (25) are third and fourth, respectively, among all NHL freshemen.
Toronto's Sunday victory was its fifth in a row, the team's longest winning spree in more than two years. The last Leafs winning streak that was longer than the current one was a six-game run from Dec. 6-16, 2014.