TORONTO – Down 2-1 after 40 minutes and his team’s power play sputtering against the Washington Capitals, Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle saw light at the end of the tunnel.
“Our message was there was a whole bunch of positives in the hockey game for us after two periods,” Carlyle said. “So we couldn’t dwell on what had happened. The only thing was we had to stay strong and persevere. Push ahead. Continue strong on the forecheck. Don’t let up.”
The strategy worked as Nikolai Kulemin and Matt Frattin scored third-period goals to give the Leafs their first home win of the season in a 3-2 comeback victory over the Capitals in NHL play Thursday night.
Kulemin tied it at 2-2 at 7:40 of the third period, poking in a puck that squeezed through Michal Neuvirth’s legs from a Michael Kostka shot from the point. As the Caps goalie tried in vain to squeeze his pads, Kulemin reached behind and nudged the puck in for his first of the year.
Frattin made it 3-2, capping off a nice passing play with Nazem Kadri at 9:53 by tapping in the puck for his fourth goal—and sixth point—in four games.
Toronto (4-3-0) lived dangerously in the final minutes, letting up on the forecheck and allowing Washington (1-5-1) to press.
“I’m sure everybody felt the same way in the building as the coaches did,” said Carlyle. “Their stomach was in their throat in a few situations.
“But that’s part of the game and we found a way to win the hockey game. The work ethic that they displayed tonight and the energy that they provided, now they’re in trouble because they’ve done it for two games in a row and the coach is going to expect it every game.”
The Leafs were coming off a 4-3 overtime win in Buffalo on Tuesday. Washington lost 3-2 in Ottawa the same night, giving up a 2-0 lead and conceding the winning goal on the power play with 2:30 remaining.
James van Riemsdyk also scored for Toronto, which outshot Washington 40-22. The Leafs had their chances to take control earlier in the game, but lack of clinical finishing and failure to convert numerous power-play opportunities frustrated them before 19,374 at the Air Canada Centre.
Neuvirth deserved better on the night, with an array of good stops. But, as Carlyle noted, the Washington cause was helped by Toronto’s lack of synch on the power play.
Toronto, which came into the game ranked 20th on the power play, went one for eight with the man advantage in a game that saw no penalties in the third period.
Alex Ovechkin doubled his goal output on the season via the power play at 2:38 of in the second period, drilling a low wrist shot through James Reimer from just outside the faceoff circle for a 2-1 lead.
“I saw it the whole way,” Reimer confessed. “Obviously that’s one I’d like to have (back) but he’s a good shooter with a tricky release.”
Ovechkin only had one other shot on the night. Leafs sniper Phil Kessel, meanwhile, had six shots and did everything but score.
Kessel, who has no goals and three assists in his first seven games, has now failed to score on 33 shots this season in his bid for his 100th goal as a Maple Leaf.
“We got a win so it doesn’t matter,” said Kessel.
“I’m trying hard. I’m getting chances. They’re just not going in right now,” he added.
His drought continued in the first period as Neuvirth stoned him from in close during a four-minute power play with Jason Chimera off for hooking and unsportsmanlike conduct.
But a Kessel shot on the extended power play led to van Riemsdyk’s goal as the big forward, stationed in front of goal like a lamppost, tucked in the rebound for his fourth of the season at 8:19 of the period.
Kessel was somehow denied by Neuvirth midway through the second when he tucked a shot between his legs from in-close. Neuvirth did it again with a glove save in the third and later stopped van Riemsdyk on a breakway.
“The goals are going to come … He’s just got to continue to keep working and not get down,” Carlyle said of Kessel.
The Caps had jumped into the lead at 1:36 when Mike Ribeiro, angling the puck from behind the goal, threaded a pass through several Toronto defenders to an unmarked Joel Ward who fired it in.
Prior to the game, Ward noted via Twitter that baseball icon Jackie Robinson would have been 94 on the day.
“Hope I represent the number well! #42,” tweeted Ward, who wears the number in Robinson’s honour.
After Ward’s goal at 1:36 of the first period, the Caps were assessed five straight penalties in the next nine minutes and were outshot 15-7 in the first period. Toronto was on the power play for 6:11 of the first 20 minutes, managing to take advantage once.
“Tonight it was the early penalties that cost us,” said Washington coach Adam Oates. “You spend so much energy killing penalties, you lose some of your juice later in the game.”
Added Ribeiro: “If you have to kill six or seven penalties every game, it’s going to cost you.”
Thanks to Ovechkin, the Caps led 2-1 midway through the game despite only having 10 shots.
Ovechkin, who has two goals and one assist on the year, hasn’t had an even-strength goal in his last 10 games, dating back to the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Leafs showed him little respect, with captain Dion Phaneuf bowling him over in the Washington crease in the first period.
Ribeiro assisted on both Washington goals, upping his scoring total to one goal and seven assists.