WASHINGTON – When Washington Capitals goaltender Michal Neuvirth last dressed for an NHL game, he was forced to leave his scheduled start on Nov. 29 before it even began when he stepped on a puck during warmups and sustained an ankle injury.
As Neuvirth recovered, the emergence of rookie Philipp Grubauer left him third on the Capitals' goaltending depth chart and wondering where he fit in the team's crowded crease.
The 25-year-old finally received an opportunity to start Friday – his first in seven weeks -- and made the most of it, stopping 32 shots as the Capitals won their second game in as many nights in a 3-2 victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Verizon Center.
"I was nervous as [heck]," Neuvirth said. "Couldn't really sleep in the pregame nap, but you know, first time I step on the ice for the warmup, I was feeling pretty good and confident. I just told myself, 'You know, it's just another game. You've been for some time in this League.' I can say I was confident. It's [an] unbelievable feeling right now."
Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Joel Ward scored for the Capitals, while Neuvirth's impressive effort after an extended absence stymied a hard-charging and desperate Maple Leafs team without a win since defeating the Detroit Red Wings in the Bridgestone 2014 NHL Winter Classic on New Year's Day.
"I thought he played a great game," Capitals coach Adam Oates said of Neuvirth. "I really did. First period, I think he had some shots that allowed him to get into the game, which is good for him."
James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel scored for the Maple Leafs, who, despite having lost four straight, were pleased with their overall effort.
"I'm not looking for excuses," said Maple Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who made 32 saves. "I'm not sure if it's because [the NHL Winter Classic] was an emotional game, and for a month we had HBO [following us], but we're professional, and we know we've got to come out and work hard every game and I don't think we did the last three. Tonight we did."
Ward scored the game-winning goal with 8:09 remaining in regulation when he got just enough on a shot from the slot.
"I knew I didn't get a good crack at it," Ward said. "I was kind of waiting for it and waiting for it and I knew I had some time there, so I was just hoping that [Capitals forward Marcus Johansson] would give me a chance to get a crack at it."
Tempers flared early in the second period when Capitals defenseman John Erskine and Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf exchanged gloved punches as officials attempted to restrain them. Both received roughing minors with Erskine earning an extra two minutes to put Toronto on the power play.
Washington killed off the penalty and scored shortly after returning to full strength. Mike Green fished the puck out of a scrum along the right-wing boards and slipped it to Mikhail Grabovski, who then moved into the slot. Ovechkin, cutting through the left circle, received Grabovski's pass and wristed it past Bernier for his NHL-leading 32nd goal of the season at 6:39.
The Capitals' lead, however, was short-lived. With Grabovski in the penalty box for tripping Jake Gardiner, van Riemsdyk tied the game for the Maple Leafs at 9:08, tipping in Kessel's shot from the right half-wall past Neuvirth for his 16th of the season.
Toronto's goal came 2:29 after Ovechkin's, making it the 23rd goal this season that the Capitals have allowed within 2:30 of scoring themselves.
Kessel gave the Maple Leafs their first lead of the game in the opening minute of the third period, barreling down the right side and snapping a shot that clipped Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner's stick blade and past Neuvirth at 54 seconds.
Less than four minutes later, Backstrom tied the game 2-2 when he stripped Cody Franson behind Toronto's net and carried the puck to the left circle. The Washington center then curled to his right and fired the puck towards the net, where it ricocheted off Jay McClement's skate for the unassisted goal.
With both teams playing the second of back-to-back sets, the first period got off to a sleepy and sloppy start. The Capitals and Maple Leafs each received power plays during the second half of the period, and while both man advantages were disjointed, the pace picked up considerably as a result with both teams trading chances. By period's end, Washington and Toronto, which entered the game Friday ranked 29th and 30th in shots allowed per game, respectively, had combined for 25 shots on goal.
By winning their second straight after snapping a four-game losing streak on Thursday against the Tampa Bay Lighting, the Capitals maintained their hold on third place in the Metropolitan Division, which has grown tighter by the day; only six points separate second place and seventh place.
"We've been waiting for wins for a bit now," Backstrom said. "We lost four in a row before [Thursday] against Tampa. We need to put together a couple of wins in a row. That's what we're hoping. We got to play the same way. We need those wins, especially during this time of the year. It is important. It's going to be hard to catch up if you're not in the top there."