TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs figured they had nothing to lose.
Locked in a winless slide and facing another potential loss in the shootout, the Toronto players decided to turn around their helmets in an effort to turn around their luck.
Phil Kessel and Niklas Hagman each responded with shootout goals while Vesa Toskala turned aside a pair of Washington shooters, giving Toronto a 2-1 victory over the Capitals on Saturday night.
It was the first time in seven attempts this season the Leafs had won a game that went to extra time. Nothing about this year seems to have gone to plan and the players had no concern about looking silly in their rally helmets.
“It doesn’t matter how we look if we win,” said Hagman. “You’ve got to change something up.”
Added coach Ron Wilson: “It’s nice that they’re trying to change their luck.”
The Maple Leafs are off to their worst start since 1990 – the last time the franchise had just four wins through 21 games – but this team doesn’t appear to be as bad as its 4-11-6 record. It has been competitive the majority of nights this season and is now just 2-9 in one-goal games.
A string of bad luck changed against the Capitals before the game even reached a shootout.
Hagman scored Toronto’s lone regulation goal without even using his stick. The Finn was skating hard to the goal when Jason Blake’s shot deflected off a Caps defender, hit Hagman in the hip and got behind Semyon Varlamov at 16:49 of the second period.
It was the kind of break the team desperately needed.
“We got a luck break on our goal, but I think we deserved it,” said Wilson.
The good fortune continued late in the third period as Washington’s Eric Fehr and Brian Pothier each had shots hit the post in the final three minutes. Fehr also had his stick break while coming in on Toskala with the Capitals first attempt in the shootout.
The victory was especially big coming on the heels of Thursday’s loss in Carolina, where Toronto blew a 3-0 lead, allowed the tying goal in the dying seconds and was beaten in a shootout.
“It shows we got character,” said defenceman Ian White. “We’re not just going to fold over and skate away.”
The Leafs were certainly fortunate to be facing a Capitals team that was not only playing for the second straight night, but was also missing seven players due to injury.
Alex Ovechkin scored in regulation for Washington (13-5-5), but was a shadow of his dynamic self. Overall, the Caps appeared sluggish and were only able to keep it close because of Varlamov’s 38 saves.
“I think they had more gas,” said Ovechkin, referring to the Maple Leafs.
One person surprised to see Toronto occupying the NHL’s basement is Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau. He often watches the team play on television and thinks the Maple Leafs are better than their record shows.
“I have no idea why they’re in the position they’re in, but I know they’re a dangerous club,” said Boudreau. “They can throw guys over the boards, they can play the game.
“They’re going to turn it around very shortly. Whether they’re too far (out of the playoffs) or not, I don’t know. But they’re going to be a hard team to play against in the not-too-distant future.”
Even still, this was a matchup of teams at the top and bottom of the Eastern Conference.
No stat better highlights the gap between them than one that came to light after Ovechkin opened the scoring at 17:11 of the first period. The goal gave the Caps the lead – something they’ve had at some point in all 23 games this season – and marked the 18th time in 21 games the Leafs have surrendered the first goal.
Ovechkin’s 16th of the season was classic No. 8. He took a nifty pass from streaking defenceman Mike Green and beat Toskala with the kind of quick, hard shot that only a handful of players in the world are capable of unleashing.
The Maple Leafs were actually unfortunate to find themselves trailing after carrying much of the play, highlighted by a pair of solid penalty kills against a dangerous team.
Even Toskala, who hadn’t won a game all season, looked sharp. He reached across an empty cage to take a sure goal away from Ovechkin, winning back some of the fans who jeered him early on.
And during one of the few times a puck behind him, it hit the post and bounced to safety.
“It’s usually a fine line between winning and losing,” said Toskala. “Luck was on our side.”
Notes: Toronto is 17-27 all-time in shootouts. … Ovechkin now has 16 goals in 17 career games against Toronto. … Garnet Exelby and Rickard Wallin were scratched for the Maple Leafs. … The Washington sick bay includes: Milan Jurcina (lower body), Mike Knuble (broken finger), Boyd Gordon (back), Alexander Semin (wrist), Quintin Lang (broken jaw), Shaone Morrisonn (upped body) and Tom Poti (upper body). … Halifax native Andrew Gordon played his second-career NHL game for the Capitals. … Chantal Kreviazuk sang the national anthems in a parka. … Announced attendance was 19,455.