There was none of that in the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room Tuesday night. While Leafs fans might be revelling in the team laying its hands on the eighth and final playoff berth in the NHL’s Eastern Conference with a 3-0 win over the woeful Washington Capitals, the players know all too well that the precious eighth spot could slip through their fingers very quickly.
They face a supreme test now with games against Ottawa in Canada’s capital Thursday and back at Air Canada Centre on Saturday. There’s a quiet confidence brewing though.
“We’ll keep working hard and putting pucks to the net,” said goaltender Andrew Raycroft, who stopped all 24 shots he faced. “We’re playing well right now.
“We just need to continue to play solid defence and stay in these games. We’re starting to win the close games now. We all have a lot of confidence in the tight ones, and they’re going to be close this weekend.”
Toronto and Carolina each have 73 points, and Toronto gets eighth because it has played one game less than the Hurricanes.
Toronto was in dire need of two points when the collapsing Capitals crept into town. Buried in 14th in the East, they’d won only one of their previous 10 games, were 2-12-1 in their previous 15 road games, and they started AHL call-up Frederic Cassivi, who hadn’t posted an NHL goaltending win since February 2003.
A decisive Toronto win loomed and, after a dull first period without a goal, the Capitals indeed were doomed.
Darcy Tucker, Yanic Perreault and Alexei Ponikarovsky scored the goals and Raycroft earned his second shutout this season and the fifth of his career in front of an announced crowd of 19,531.
Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin were scoring threats most times they were on the ice with Kris Beech but the Leafs had nothing to worry about beyond that one line. As a group, the Capitals played what had to be the worst game by a visiting team in Toronto this season.
Tucker opened the scoring at 3:08 of the second when a rebound bounced in off his right shoulder. It was his 20th goal and first since Dec. 16 – just before he broke his left foot. This was only the right-winger’s second game back in the lineup.
“I haven’t been feeling any pressure to score,” Tucker said. “Maybe on the power play, but coming back into the lineup, I don’t think anybody expected me to come back and score like I was before I got hurt, but I’ve got to get back to that.
“The only way to do that is to work hard and try to contribute in any aspect I can.”
Perreault got his 20th goal, and his first in this his third stint with the Leafs, at 14:39 of the second. Chad Kilger flipped the puck off the boards to get it behind defenceman Milan Jurcina. Perreault raced in to get it and he had an open alley to Cassivi. Perreault swooped across the front of the crease, pulled the puck to his backhand and neatly tucked it into the open side of the net.
“It’s always nice to get one at the ACC,” he said. “Every game is a big game right now and we played a pretty solid game, and we have to keep that going for the rest of the week.”
Ponikarovsky got his 18th goal at 2:47 of the third by deflecting in a Nik Antropov slapshot.
Steve Yzerman, who will be GM of Canada’s team for the world men’s tournament in Russia in the spring, scouted the game.
“There aren’t any guys in here who want to be on that team,” said Tucker. “We plan on being in the playoffs.”
Expect to see Ovechkin in Russia’s lineup, and in a better mood than the one he was in as he headed for his team’s bus. It was a night to forgot for the 38-goal shooter.
“We played well (in the) first period,” he offered. “We had great chances to score, but we couldn’t.”
The Capitals are giving farmhands a shot to show what they can do as their losing season winds down.
“We’re playing some young kids, and we’ve improved defensively but, as you could see, we’re challenged offensively,” said coach Glen Hanlon. “We’ve got to at least generate something on the power play, and that didn’t happen either.
“Give (the Leafs) credit. They did well on the penalty kill, and scored some goals when they needed to. They had a good gameplan. I can’t speak on their behalf, but Paul (Maurice) likely said, ‘Let’s not open (the game) up and give Ovechkin and Semin a chance.’ I would assume that would be their plan, and they executed.
“They were patient. You can see a change in how they played from the start of the year. It’s been successful for them, and now they’re right where they need to be to be in the playoffs.”
Notes: Toronto had a 31-24 shots advantage . . . Both teams were 0-for-5 on power plays . . . C Mats Sundin remained two goals shy of Darryl Sittler’s club-record 389 . . . D Pavel Kubina, who had missed the five previous games with a broken finger, was back in the Leafs lineup . . . F Kyle Wellwood, out since Dec. 20 and rehabbing from hernia surgery, is eyeing next Tuesday for his return . . . Washington was without LW Matt Pettinger, who broke his right thumb last Thursday . . . The Leafs have 15 games left on their schedule. After the two against Ottawa, they play at home Tuesday against Tampa Bay.