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Five Takeaways - Leafs vs Capitals - 11/25/17

Here are five takeaways from the Maple Leafs' 4­-2 loss to the Washington Capitals Saturday at Air Canada Centre:

by Adam Proteau Proteautype / MapleLeafs.com

1. Leafs put up stronger start to game, but Ovechkin strikes twice to give Capitals two-goal lead heading into second. The Leafs recently have been concerned about sub-par starts to games that resulted in them being significantly out-chanced by opponents, but they came out of the dressing room focused and with structure Saturday. Consequently, Toronto outshot the Capitals 8-3 to start the night, but Washington generated the only offence in the first period thanks to star winger Alex Ovechkin and led 2-0 entering the second period.

Both of Ovechkin's goals came on slap shots that beat Buds goalie Curtis McElhinney. The first came at 12:43 of the first, and the second - Ovechkin's 17th of the year - came on the power play with 47 seconds left in the frame. Toronto wound up with 11 shots to Washington's seven and the Buds came close to scoring more than once, but a sniper like Ovechkin always seems to find a way to contribute given enough time and space, and on both goals, he had both of those elements, wound up, and did what he does best.

2. Caps use physical approach, speed to wear down Leafs, extend lead midway through second. Toronto was playing its second game in as many nights, and Washington's game plan was centred around a physical and fast attack intended to wear their opponent down. And the Leafs had difficulty answering back in the second period, getting called for a pair of minor penalties in the period and surrendering the third goal of the evening - a breakaway marker by winger Jakub Vrana at 11:02.

Toronto head coach Mike Babcock tinkered with the lineup that helped his team beat the Hurricanes 5-4 Friday in Carolina, and tried to offset any fatigue with a few rested players. But the Caps also played on Friday, so that couldn't be an excuse. The reality was Washington was stronger on the puck and tougher to play against than the Leafs were, and they took a three-goal advantage into the third because of it.

3. Toronto surges to start third, gets on scoreboard via Gardiner goal. The Capitals were 8-0-1 when leading after two periods this year, but the Leafs were determined to not go gently into the night, starting the third period with fire in their bellies. And at the 1:23 mark of the period, blueliner Jake Gardiner fired a shot from the blueline that Caps goalie Braden Holtby didn't see - thanks to a great screening job by winger Zach Hyman - and got past him for Toronto's first goal.

Gardiner's goal amped up Toronto's attack even more, and the Leafs used the momentum to dominate puck possession at the start of the third. The crowd at the ACC also was energized by it, and about five minutes later, they'd have even more to cheer about.


4. Zaitsev pulls Buds within one goal as Leafs get a fortunate bounce from hockey gods. The Buds continued applying pressure to the Capitals after Gardiner scored, spending the majority of time in Washington's end and keeping the visitors chasing the play more often than not. And at the 6:09 mark, defenceman Nikita Zaitsev took the puck deep in the offensive zone and flipped a backhand shot that ricocheted off the stick of Caps counterpart Taylor Chorney and up over Holtby's shoulder to cut the lead to 3-2.

Zaitsev's goal was his third of the season, and it showed the Leafs still had something left in the tank in the final 14 minutes of regulation. But beating a world-class netminder like Holtby for the tying goal was going to be no small order. 

5. Leafs come close to getting game-tying goal in dying seconds of third, but Holtby shuts door, preserves win for Caps. Leafs head coach Mike Babcock pulled McElhinney for the final 2:06 of regulation time and Toronto came agonizingly close to evening the score on a few occasions. However, Holtby was great when he had to be, and Washington's defenders did a solid job of limiting follow-up scoring chances.

Washington got one final goal - an empty-netter from Ovechkin with 8.7 seconds left to give him a hat-trick - to seal the win, and the Leafs will head out on a Western Canadian road trip that begins in Calgary Tuesday knowing they need to continue to focus on improving their starts to games and minimizing their defensive miscues.

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