What can’t Knuble do? (Photo credit: Graig Abel)
In their first game of the final back-to-back of the season, the Capitals found themselves in Air Canada Centre to face the surging Toronto Maple Leafs. Since the All-Star break, the Leafs have gone a ridiculous and improbable 18-7-5, riding mid-season call-up James Reimer’s (Oops, sorry!) Optimus Reim‘s incredible goaltending back into playoff contention.
Unfortunately for the Leafs, their chances of still making the playoffs were about as likely as Jason Chimera having a 50 goal season: less than one percent. To stave off mathematical elimination for one more night, they had to have either a regulation or overtime win against DC and a loss from Buffalo.
“They have to have every point,” winger Brooks Laich explained to the media after the Capitals pre-game skate. “They have to have every point in regulation the next three games and then hope for the best. This is an elimination game for the Leafs and they’re going to show us their absolute best.
Toronto certainly came out hard, as Nikolai Kulemin tallied the game’s first goal — his 30th of the year — 5:37 into the first period on the power play. After the Leafs brought the puck up the ice with speed, Kulemin cut to the middle of the circles, used Karl Alzner and John Erskine as a screen and flicked a wrist-shot past a helpless Michal Neuvirth. Alex Ovechkin responded 6:49 later with his 300th career goal, blasting a power-play one-timer from inside the left circle past an overpowered Reimer.
Joffrey Lupul regained the Leafs lead in the second period, slipping past Jeff Schultz on a two on two rush and knocking home a brilliant pass from everyone’s favorite last pick in the All-Star Fantasy Draft, Phil Kessel. John Erskine — yes, John Erskine — then answered Lupul’s tally midway through the period, misfiring on a thigh-high shot from the point by nearly five feet. Lucky for Big John, it ricocheted off of Luke Schenn’s rump and into the back of the net. 2-2.
That score held up until the end of regulation. But by then, the Leafs playoff hopes had been dashed as Buffalo defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning, 4-2. The Sabres victory also ironically clinched the Capitals fourth straight Southeast Division crown.
Neither team managed to score in overtime or the first three rounds of the shootout. So Bruce Boudreau turned to 38-year old Mike Knuble in the bottom of the fourth.
“I was going down the list oldest to youngest and I had Arnott up and then I looked down, I said, ‘Knuble’s older,’ so I went with him,” Boudreau explained. “There’s no science or anything involved in that tonight.”
Kanoobs went on to beat Reimer high and glove side, prompting a raucous celebration at their end of the ice with Neuvy. Caps beat Leafs, 3-2 (SO)!!
Tonight, the Capitals played an opponent who was in playoffs mode for 59:10 of the game. Tomorrow, they will face a team who was eliminated from the the big dance several weeks ago and has nothing to play for except for pride. If the Capitals can somehow win out Wednesday and Saturday against the Panthers, they will be the Eastern Conference’s number one seed, something that six weeks ago seemed very unlikely. Oh, the wonders of net crashing and a dedication to defense!
See you back here tomorrow night!
Additional reporting by Neil Greenberg.
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