The Toronto Maple Leafs returned home Thursday night following a six-game road trip, and despite outshooting the visiting Washington Capitals, lost 3-2 in a hard-fought battle from the opening whistle.
LEAFS CAN'T GENERATE OFFENCE EARLY IN GAME, FALL BEHIND BY TWO EARLY IN SECOND PERIOD
The Maple Leafs entered Thursday's game against Washington on a two-game losing streak, and one of the reasons for that was their inability to produce goals early in those games. Against both the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 19 and against the Arizona Coyotes Feb. 16, Toronto surrendered the first two goals, and wound up on the losing side of the ledger each time.
That pattern repeated itself Thursday when the Buds took on the defending Stanley Cup-champion Capitals: After a goalless first period in which the Leafs outshot the Caps 12-8, the scoring began on a Washington power play at 3:54 of the second frame when Alex Ovechkin netted his 43rd goal of the season.
A little more than eight minutes after Ovechkin scored, Washington extended its lead to 2-0 on forward Brett Connolly's 15th goal of the year. That was all of the scoring through 40 minutes - and although the Leafs had fired 21 shots at Caps netminder Braden Holtby, they'd yet to solve him and get on the scoreboard.
JOHNSSON SCORES TO HALVE CAPS' LEAD, BUT WILSON'S QUICK REPLY RESTORES TWO-GOAL ADVANTAGE
The Leafs turned up the heat on Washington in the third, getting as many shots on net in the final regulation period alone as they did in the first two frames (and firing 42 overall at Holtby). Eventually, their persistence paid off - this time, in the form of winger Andreas Johnsson's 16th goal of the year, at 4:23 of the third:
Video: WSH@TOR: Johnsson hammers home rebound in front
Johnsson did a terrific job of skating to the net and blasting home a rebound off a shot by centre Auston Matthews. Unfortunately, the Caps responded by hurting Toronto in the worst way - a shorthanded goal by Tom Wilson at 6:46 of the third.
Having an opportunity to pull even with Washington, only to watch that turn into the Capitals' third goal of the game, took wind out of the Leafs' sails. Against a defending champion, allowing their special teams goals in both departments is a near-guarantee of defeat.
TAVARES PULLS LEAFS WITHIN ONE, BUT TIME EXPIRES AS TORONTO SEEKS GAME-TYING GOAL
The Leafs didn't score on either of their two power plays, but Toronto pushed until the final buzzer. And with less than 33 seconds left in regulation, centre John Tavares netted his team-leading 34th goal of the season:
Video: WSH@TOR: Tavares goes top shelf for late goal
That pulled Toronto within one of Washington, but with less than half-a-minute left in the game, the Leafs ran out of time to register the game-tying marker and dropped their third game in a row.
Thursday's tilt was the first of four straight at Scotiabank Arena; the next one comes Saturday, when the Leafs' arch-rivals from Montreal come to town. The Canadiens are challenging the Leafs' spot in the Atlantic Division standings, and they've won two straight games, so Toronto will have to be at its best - and it'll help if the boys in blue & white produce offence early in the battle.