After a full day away from the rink Thursday, the Maple Leafs returned to their practice facility intent on continuing to gel and develop as a team capable of competing against any opponent. But the more pressing matter was their Saturday game against the potent Washington Capitals. And given the way their first meeting with the Caps this year ended – with the Buds surrendering game-tying goal to Nicklas Backstrom in the last second of regulation time and the shootout-winner to Alex Ovechkin – Toronto’s players are particularly aware nothing less than a full 60-minute effort will be enough to get a win against the Eastern Conference powerhouse.
“The margin for error is really small,” said Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk, who scored one of Toronto’s two goals in that 3-2 shootout loss to Washington Nov. 7. “They’re going to make some plays out there with the players they have on their team, so you have to make sure you’re sharp for the whole 60 minutes and not give them any freebies. They’ve shown what they can do when they have a lot of space.”
“They’re a really good team and their goalie is playing great,” added winger Joffrey Lupul, singling out star netminder Braden Holtby. “They’re a little banged up on D, but they’ve got one of the best defence corps in the league. So they’re a team that poses a big threat, for sure.”
Leafs head coach Mike Babcock believes the biggest difference between the Caps teams of the past and the more well-rounded Caps squads we’ve seen this season and last year can be found in the change behind the bench: the hiring of veteran coach Barry Trotz.
“I don’t think a bunch has changed (for Washington) from last year, I think the big change was when Trotzy got there a year ago,” Babcock said. “They’re a big team, they’re a talented team, they’ve got depth in scoring, they’ve got depth on the back end, and got good goaltending. They’re a real good team.”
The game against the Capitals at Air Canada Centre marks another showdown between the spectacular Ovechkin and Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf. The two players broke into the NHL in the same season (2005-06) and have had some memorable battles that date back to the IIHF Under-18 World Championship in Piestany, Slovakia. Although those battles can get heated, Phaneuf has a healthy appreciation for the talent and determination Ovechkin plays with every night.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Ovie,” Phaneuf said of the superstar, who has 11 goals this year, including one against Toronto in the Leafs’ shootout loss earlier this month (not to mention a disallowed goal that same night). “He plays hard, he finishes his checks. But the bottom line is that, for us coming in (to the NHL) at the same time, we’ve played against each other a long time, and you’ve got that respect for each other.
“He keeps doing it year after year, and I remember one or two years ago he got off to a slow start and everyone was wondering what’s going on. But at the end of the day, he scores goals and he’s done it consistently through his whole career. He’s dangerous every time he has the puck, he’s a shooter, he loves to shoot the puck, and he shoots it hard and shoots it very well. I’ve got to give him a lot of credit: in a game that keeps evolving and where they try to shut down scorers, he’s probably been one of the most consistent over the last decade.”
Phaneuf’s teammates are in full agreement Ovechkin is a primary focus for the Leafs.
“Obviously, the goals are still there for him,” Lupul said of the Russian star. “He scored a goal against us last game and had one disallowed that probably should’ve counted, in all honesty. But he’s a dangerous player and you’ve got to know when he’s out there, especially on the power play.”
“He’s always been pretty electric and dynamic,” added van Riemsdyk. “As far as a guy you’d want with the puck on his stick in the slot, I think he’d be the guy you’d want. He’s a fun guy to watch and a pretty exciting player.”
That said, the Leafs also are aware they can’t get completely caught up in containing Ovechkin if they’re to get back in the win column. Their evolving, improving structure and discipline has to be evident to have a chance of beating the Capitals, who’d won three in a row and seven of their past 10 games entering a showdown with Tampa Bay Friday night in D.C.
“We’re still a work in progress,” Lupul said. “It’s kind of the quarter pole (of the season) now, but you can see noticeable differences. We’re better now than we were a couple months ago, but we’re going to have to keep improving if we want to be a team that can stay in that playoff race.”
“There’s always different tweaks you’re going to make depending on what team you’re playing,” added van Riemsdyk, “but for the most part we’re just focusing on the way (Babcock) wants us to play, and that’s pretty consistent no matter what. There are some staples he wants us to play to, and if we bring those every night, we put ourselves in a position to be successful.”