Washington Capitals vs. Toronto Maple Leafs: It's Hockey Night In Canada Tonight

Alan Zlotorzynski@@zlotsportsCorrespondent IIIJanuary 22, 2011

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 06:  Jonas Gustavsson #50 of the Toronto Maple Leafs makes a save against the Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center on December 6, 2010 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

The last time the Capitals played the Maple Leafs, Washington had just lost two in a row, and after two periods against Toronto, Washington seemed poised to halt the losing streak as they led the Leafs 4-1 headed into the third period.

The Capitals may have been a little too poised as the Leafs scored three third period goals en-route to a 5-4 shootout win.

The loss would be the Caps third in a row and send them into what eventually ended up being an eight game losing streak—their longest under the Boudreau era.

The Capitals are a drastically different team than the one that took the ice that night in DC. Though most of the players are the same, the game they play is not. Washington is no longer the offensive juggernaut that scored more goals (313) than any team since the 1995-96 season last year.

Since that last game against the Leafs, the Caps are 29th in the NHL averaging just 2.05 goals per game. They have been shut out four times and their record is 8-11.

They have still managed to earn 21 points with five overtime losses.

They are currently the fifth best team in the NHL's Eastern Conference and are second in the Southeast, three points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Capitals are on pace to score 81 less goals than last season, but it's not all gloom and doom in DC. The Capitals continue to earn points as head coach Bruce Boudreau feels his team will eventually bust out.

Boudreau was recently quoted as saying, "“If you’re a goal-scorer, you may be in a slump but all of a sudden it just doesn’t fade away. So eventually, they will start scoring again, and at the rate that they’re capable of.”

Boudreau added, “So if they learn and they know how to play defense, and then they get the balance with the offense, I think our team will be in good shape come in a couple months.”

That has been the key for the "offensive" way the Caps are playing offense—the defense.

There seems to be a plan in place to be a better playoff team and most hierarchy in DC believe that playing defense is going to carry the offensive-minded Capitals further than a first round playoff exit.

“We’re not scoring,” says Boudreau, “so we better be aware of the defensive end because we’re only averaging about two goals a game for the last 20.”

Boudreau could not be more correct. The Capitals have failed to score more than three goals in 18 of their last night games. They have not registered 30 shots on goal in five straight games.

With all those offensive struggles, the Capitals can still earn their 62nd point with a win in Toronto tonight. The Capitals' defense has picked up the slack for the struggling offense and seems to be getting more comfortable with the new style of defense Boudreau wants to play.

Defenseman Scott Hannan leads an emerging Caps blue line. Hannan acquired from Colorado on November 30 is a plus five in his last 14 games and has not had a minus game during that stretch.

The Caps defense is young at the core with an average age of just 23-years-old. One of those young guns, Karl Alzner is a plus-13 in his last 16 games and has improved to a plus-10 on the season, fourth on the team.

The Caps have allowed just 32 goals in their last 16 games and perhaps the biggest reason is the play of the young dynamic goaltending duo of Michael Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov. Both have had a huge part in the recent defensive stinginess.

Varlamov did not play Thursday with a sore groin but is expected to start in Toronto tonight. Varlamov has been sensational this season. In his last eight games, he is 4-2-2 with 1.81 goals-against average and a very stingy .944 save percentage. 

You still need to put the puck in the net to win and the Caps first line factored in both goals in beating the Islanders on Thursday night.

Nick Backstrom is currently riding a four game point scoring streak and scored his first goal in 21 games on Thursday night. The game winner against the Islanders felt good for Backstrom, I’ve been waiting a long time for that,”

Backstrom feeling relieved continued, “It felt good, absolutely. It was a little bit frustrating when you haven’t been scoring in 20 games. It feels good to score a goal. I almost forgot how it was to score a goal.”

The Caps opponents tonight, the Maple Leafs are 1-1 this season against Washington. Both contests took place in DC and both went to a shootout.

The Leafs are struggling this season. Their 19-22-5 record has them 11 points behind the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They are 10-10-4 at the Air Canada Center this season while Washington is 10-9-3 away from the nation’s capital.

The Leafs roller coaster of a season continues as they are 6-3-1 in their last 10 games but have lost three of their last four, including a 7-0 beat down they received Wednesday in New York against the Rangers.

The Leafs are 25th in the league in goals-per game with an average of 2.52 but Toronto has five players with a dozen or more goals this season led by Phil Kessel with 19. The Leafs have seven players with 20 or more points as Clarke MacArthur leads the way with 40.

After surrendering just two goals in a win bounce back win for his team over Anaheim on Thursday, Jean-Sebastien Giguere is expected to start against the Caps tonight. On the season, J.S Giguere is 9-7-3 with goals-against of 2.69 and a .900 save percentage.

The Leafs are led by former Caps Head Coach Ron Wilson. Wilson was behind the bench for Washington's only trip to a Stanley Cup Final in the 1998 season.



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