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Five Takeaways from Maple Leafs vs. Capitals

by Adam Proteau / Toronto Maple Leafs

Here are five takeaways from the Maple Leafs’ 3-2 loss to the Washington Capitals Wednesday at Verizon Center:

Energized Leafs effort for most of first period undone by sloppy play in final two minutes.

Toronto came to play right from the opening faceoff, Wednesday, limiting Washington to just four shots on net in the first 18 minutes of the first period, and earning a whopping three power plays thanks to the sustained pressure they put on the host Capitals. However, the final two minutes of the frame undid all of that good, as the Leafs committed costly turnovers in their own zone and the Caps made the most of them with goals from Taylor Chorney and Alex Ovechkin in a 28-second span.

Inconsistency is the hallmark of a young team, and with the Buds’ collection of youngsters at the very beginnings of their NHL careers, increasing the amount of time between mistakes – period to period and game to game – is going to be a top priority.

Nikita Soshnikov enjoyed a big night.

After he made his NHL debut with a solid effort Monday night against Tampa Bay, Soshnikov made an excellent impact against the Capitals: first, he scored his first career NHL goal and cut Washington’s lead in half thanks to a wicked wrist shot that beat goalie Philipp Grubauer 1:37 into the second period; then, he engaged in his first (albeit brief) fisticuffs just two minutes later after crashing the net attempting to score.

At 5-foot-11, the 22-year-old Soshnikov hardly is an imposing figure on the ice, but he had a game-high six hits Wednesday and appears bound to be a fan favourite in Leafs Nation if he can continue displaying the edge and determination we’ve seen from him in his two games playing for head coach Mike Babcock thus far.

Brooks Laich’s return to Washington a confidence-builder.

The veteran centre got to return to his former team just three days after the Caps dealt him to Toronto as part of a package that included forward Daniel Winnik, and Laich rose to the occasion, logging 14:17 of ice time – including 4:10 on the power play, after averaging just 0:02 of PP time in 60 games with Washington this year – and providing an experienced presence for a young Leafs lineup.

The 32-year-old’s days of being a 20-25-goal scorer are likely gone for good. But Laich intends to show the hockey world he’s got much more left in the tank, and in a season where he often played less than 10 minutes a game – and on an emotional night that included a heartfelt video and crowd tribute from an appreciative Caps organization and fan base – the fact he earned a season-high in minutes had to feel great and build his self-confidence for the remaining games this year.

This probably sounds familiar, but special teams proved to be the difference between a win and loss for the Buds.

The Leafs have had issues all season putting together games where their penalty kill and power play units are functioning at their best, and Wednesday was another example of those struggles. Toronto failed to convert on any of their three first-period man advantages (and four on the night), and the game-winning goal – scored by Washington’s Matt Niskanen just 1:15 after Colin Greening tied the game at the 8:16 mark of the third period – was a power play marker for the Capitals.

Of course, some of Toronto’s most skilled forwards (including P-A Parenteau, Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk and Joffrey Lupul) are dealing with injuries that kept them out of the lineup against the Caps and weakened the Buds’ power play, but, far more often than not, when you give arguably the NHL’s best team a bunch of power plays and fail to do any damage when they return the favour, the result will be predictable, and not ideal.

Toronto’s other kids remain a work-in-progress, but their presence on-ice at the end of the game speaks volumes.

The line of William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen and Zach Hyman – all of who made their NHL debuts against the Lightning – began the game against Washington playing together, but as the evening progressed, Babcock broke them up, keeping Kapanen and Nylander together and using Hyman as a penalty-killer.

Still, for the second straight night, as the game drew to a close and the Leafs tried to push for the tying goal, Babcock wasn’t hesitant to employ any of the three rookies: at least one of the three was on the ice for the grand majority of the final three minutes of regulation time, and their minute totals – Kaspanen led the way among the trio at 17:07, followed by Nylander (16:12, including a team-best 5:02 on the power play) and Hyman (14:04) – were another indication they’re fitting in quite nicely in hockey’s best league.

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