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Ovechkin says Leafs 'have to play differently,' then they go out and prove him absolutely right

A lack of defensive commitment by the Maple Leafs led to the Capitals' game-tying goal, and that's exactly what Ovechkin was hinting at when he said Toronto would need to change how it plays if it wants to take the next step.

In a development that should have surprised nobody, one of the greatest goal-scorers of all-time torched the Toronto Maple Leafs Tuesday night. Alex Ovechkin’s two goals and two assists gave him 41 goals and 73 points against the Leafs in 50 career games. Twenty-four of those goals have been scored in Toronto. But hours before he scored the 668th and 669th goals of his career to pass Luc Robitaille for No. 12 on the all-time list, Ovechkin started a bonfire in the Center of the Hockey Universe™, one whose embers might be hot for quite some time.

You see, Ovechkin knows as well as anyone what it’s like to be super-talented and fail time and again. Because he’s done it. He also knows a little of how redemption feels. So when he says something like he did about the Leafs after the morning skate Tuesday morning, the Leafs should respond by ripping down every slogan in their dressing room and placing it in big letters in every nook and cranny. Instead, the Leafs went out and proved Ovechkin right. (More on that later.)

“I hope they’re gonna learn,” Ovechkin said of the Leafs and their inconsistent play. “But it’s up to them how they want to do it. If they want to play for themselves or if they want to win a Stanley Cup…they have to play differently.”

And for much of their 4-3 overtime loss against the Capitals, it looked as though the Leafs were listening intently. When asked prior to the game about the comments by Mark Masters of TSN, Mike Babcock replied, “Things like that always sting way more when it’s right.” For his part, Auston Matthews didn’t have a verbal response to Ovechkin throwing down that gauntlet, but what he and his teammates did on the ice that led to the tying goal by the Capitals in the third period, they made Ovechkin look like a genius.

On the whole, Auston Matthews was pretty good. But about two minutes after Matthews scored his 11th goal of the season to put the Leafs up 3-2, T.J. Oshie broke out of the Capitals’ zone with the puck. Matthews came in with a token, fly-by forecheck that was spectacular in its ineffectiveness. That was followed by another lazy stick check by William Nylander through the neutral zone. Oshie then turned Morgan Rielly inside out without much of a challenge from the usually reliable defenseman, then overpowered Justin Holl en route to the net to set Ovechkin up for the tying goal.

That is exactly the kind of thing Ovechkin was talking about in the morning. Four inexcusably bad and borderline lazy plays by four players who need to be better and more committed to playing without the puck. If Matthews comes in hard and determined on the forecheck, perhaps he stops Oshie before the play has a chance to develop. If that happens, the Capitals perhaps don’t score the tying goal, then take advantage of a Leaf conga line to the penalty box to score the winner in overtime.

When asked about it after the game, Babcock didn’t back down from his pre-game comments. He knows that 10 years ago, Ovechkin probably would have made the same kind of lazy play his guys did. He also pointed out that people questioned Steve Yzerman until he was in his 30s, only getting recognition when he redefined himself as a two-way player.

“Well, I don’t know if he’s wrong,” Babcock said of Ovechkin’s comments. “He knows, because he lived it. Steve Yzerman lived it. A lot of guys live it until they’re 30. You’ve got to decide whether you want to wait until you’re 30 or do you want to figure it out now. It’s the ultimate team game and you’ve got to sacrifice for your teammates.”

On that tying goal Tuesday, there was not a lot of evidence of anyone sacrificing for the good of the team. And it likely cost the Leafs a point in the standings. Perhaps this might be a lesson learned for the Leafs, but they’re going to have to start applying that lesson to the way they approach the game and, more importantly, crucial parts of the game.

“It gets your attention – it hurts your feelings,” Babcock said. “He’s just talking about running and gunning and not being able to play (defensively). Is that not a fair assessment? It hurts my feelings, I can tell you that. I’m the coach and I’m supposed to get all this organized. We know this and we’re working toward it every single day.”

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