MAPLE LEAFS (15-10-3) at CAPITALS (14-12-1)
TV: SNET-O, CSN-MA
Toronto 5-4-1; Washington 4-6-0
The Maple Leafs lead the season series 1-0 after trouncing Washington 7-1 on Nov. 19 at the Air Canada Centre.
Are the Caps heating up? The team's transition to success has been slow under new coach Dale Hunter, but an improved offense and one highlight-reel goal in particular may be signs that things will be back to normal soon in Washington. The Capitals will get a big test as they open a quick two-game homestand when the Leafs come to town Friday.
Toronto has certainly exceeded expectations to this point this season, but after an undefeated November by the rival Bruins, the Leafs now find themselves in a dogfight for first place in the Northeast Division with the defending Stanley Cup champions. That doesn't mean Toronto hasn't shown some fight of its own lately, however, as the Leafs rallied from a 2-0 deficit Tuesday night to force overtime against New Jersey, though the Devils eventually won in the extra period.
Despite that kind of effort, the Leafs could still use a few wins in a row to give them better footing. Toronto has won just one of its last four games and perhaps even more noteworthy is that the team may have a goalie controversy on its hand. While presumptive starter James Reimer
was out with an injury, backup Jonas Gustavsson
won eight of his 13 appearances and has another win since Reimer's return.
Scoring 20 points in 27 games -- roughly a third of a season -- is a perfectly solid total for the vast majority of forwards in the NHL. But Alex Ovechkin
is not in the vast majority of NHL forwards. His unique skills, speed and on-ice tenacity have bred a career in which Ovi has finished the season in triple digits more often than not, so with a pace that currently puts him on track for 60 points one year after his career low of 85, many have been asking what, exactly, is holding down the Russian sniper.
But in Wednesday night's 5-3 win in Ottawa, Ovechkin flashed those skills for the first time in a while, scoring a phenomenal goal after going coast to coast and wheeling from behind the Senators' net to the right faceoff dot before unleashing a blast into the net. If this is him waking up it can't come soon enough for Washington. The Caps are just 2-3-0 under Hunter and chasing the surprising Panthers in the Southeast while dancing around the bottom of the East's top eight. But it's worth noting that Ovi's goal isn't the only one of note. Washington has nine goals in the past two games. Perhaps, at long last, the team is getting its act together for a prolonged run.
Washington's John Carlson
is still young, but he's done a tremendous amount to fill Mike Green
's offensive void on the blue line. Carlson has tallied 7 points in the Caps' last three games. … Luke Schenn
has been pouring in points from his own blue line lately, tallying 1 goal and 5 assists in his last five games for Toronto.
The Leafs are still without Matt Lombardi (dislocated shoulder) and Mike Komisarek
(broken arm), who both suffered injuries last month. Toronto may also be without Clarke MacArthur
, who is listed as questionable with an upper-body injury. … The Caps have been without Green for nearly a month due to a strained right groin, while Matt Hendricks
and Roman Hamrlik
are both considered questionable with lower-body injuries.
The Capitals' quick two-game stay at the Verizon Center could give them the right setting to take off. Despite struggling in general this season, Washington is 9-4-1 at home.
Of all the surprises in the NHL so far this season, none is more unexpected than the Capitals trailing the Panthers in the Southeast. That deficit reached as large as seven points this week, which means if the Caps are to take the division it could be a while before they make up the necessary ground. There's no time to waste, though, and Washington would do well to start the comeback Friday.