Early measuring stick goes in Toronto’s favor
Matthews lifts Leafs in clash of two expected Stanley Cup contenders
WASHINGTON — Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews was lurking beside the right post when the puck took a bounce in the crease and landed on his stick. He turned and flicked it across the goal line, pumping both fists as he bent at the waist and roared. The red goal light flashed, and the night was officially the Maple Leafs’.
The night had been an entertaining chess match between two teams expected to be among the NHL’s best this season. On one bench, the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals. On the other, the Maple Leafs, a trendy pick to claim that title this season. It came down to the third period, where Toronto was better and Washington got sloppy, and so the Maple Leafs won Saturday night’s early-season measuring-stick game, 4-2, as the Capitals lost a second game in a row.
“It was a pretty evenly matched game,” Washington goaltender Braden Holtby said. “They seemed to get a few breaks, and we kind of didn’t seem to get those – a bunch of open nets that just didn’t seem to go our way. But there are still areas there that I think we’d like to just keep improving at. It was a good test obviously, but we know we have more.”
After forward Par Lindholm tipped in the game-tying goal with 1:07 left in the second period, Toronto controlled play to start the third. Defenseman Michal Kempny clipped center John Tavares with a high stick, giving the Maple Leafs a power play. Forty-one seconds later, Josh Leivo gave Toronto its first lead. Matthews delivered the final cushion with less than two minutes left in the game.
“The first 10 minutes of third period, we kind of sloppy a little bit,” center Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “I don’t know why we [made] those mistakes, but then they got that goal.”
This was expected to be a highscoring affair; Toronto had scored 25 goals in its first five games, and Washington had 18 goals in its first three before getting shut out by the New Jersey Devils two nights ago. On the first shift of the game, captain Alex Ovechkin collected the puck in the Capitals’ defensive zone and flung it up the ice, where Kuznetsov got it for a two-on-one with Chandler Stephenson. Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen stopped Kuznetsov’s shot, but Stephenson knocked in the rebound to lift the Capitals to a 1-0 lead just 18 seconds in.
With right wing Tom Wilson suspended for the season’s first 20 games, pending an appeal, Washington has had to replace his presence on the top line. Brett Connolly played there for the first four games, but with his team coming off a 6-0 loss Thursday, coach Todd Reirden decided to make a change. He promoted Stephenson to the right side of Kuznetsov and Ovechkin the only other time the trio had played together was in the clinching Game 6 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of last season’s playoffs.
“Obviously, the start was great, but they did a number of good things during the game as well,” Reirden said. “So, I thought they accomplished a lot. I thought he brought the speed on the forecheck and was able to at least go after their defense a little bit and force some turnovers. Kuznetsov and Ovi were able to at least get some opportunities from that. So I think it’s important to have him in that situation and it was good to see to him. We’ll continue to try to put together four lines that give us the best chance.”
The game settled into a tightchecking rhythm after Stephenson’s goal, but Toronto broke through for its first goal when Kasperi Kapanen deflected Ron Hainsey’s point shot early in the second period. Sixty-nine seconds later, Washington was back up. The Capitals were awarded a power play when Tavares tripped Ovechkin, and after Kuznetsov collected a pass from Nicklas Backstrom behind the goal line, he stickhandled up to the net, keeping his eyes on forward T.J. Oshie in the slot. Without looking at the net, Kuznetsov placed a shot over an unsuspecting Andersen’s shoulder.
SUSPENSION APPEAL: Wilson will have his appeal hearing with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Thursday in New York City, according to the NHL Players’ Association. Wilson is serving a 20-game suspension from the league’s Department of Player Safety for an illegal check to the head of St. Louis forward Oskar Sundqvist.
The NHL Players’ Association filed for an appeal on Wilson’s behalf last Friday, and Bettman’s ruling won’t necessarily signal the end of the process. If Bettman does not lift the ban, Wilson can then choose to appeal to a neutral arbitrator, and players have had more success with that route. Nashville forward Austin Watson recently had his 27-game ban for domestic abuse reduced to 18 games by Shyam Das, the same arbitrator who would rule on Wilson’s case if it gets that far.