Lessons are cheap in a 48-game NHL season. Points are at a premium, and the playoffs are the priority.
But the Washington Capitals needed only one game after blowing a four-goal lead to figure out they can’t stop skating. After building a three-goal advantage on the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night, the Caps rolled 5-1 to their eighth straight victory.
“We protected the lead a lot better today, especially in the third,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “We’re making strides in all areas of the game right now. We’re taking pieces of the previous game to make sure we improve on them without forgetting about the stuff that we’ve learned in the past, too.”
Their lead in the Southeast Division remained at four points, as the Winnipeg Jets beat the Tampa Bay Lightning in a shootout. Washington’s magic number to clinch the Southeast stands at seven, either points gained or not picked up by the Jets.
The Caps took one step closer to the playoffs by dominating the Maple Leafs, who had won seven of their past 10 coming in.
“We’re playing some good hockey right now,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “Toronto’s been playing well as of late, too, so to get a pretty decisive win against them tonight, it shows us that we belong where we are.”
It started with defenseman Jack Hillen’s goal that deflected off Nazem Kadri’s stick and past Maple Leafs goaltender Ben Scrivens. Hillen has three goals and three assists in five games since learning of the birth of his second son, Knox.
“He’s in such good condition that he can go home, miss a day-and-a-half, fly back,” coach Adam Oates said. “Obviously, part of his professional life is his personal life. And he was able to do that and stay focused and play good hockey for us and that’s our job. That is being a hockey player.”
But the Caps really got going after Maple Leafs forward Jay McClement shoved Nicklas Backstrom into the boards at the 15:24 mark of the first period. Captain Alex Ovechkin zipped over and jumped McClement, drawing the only penalty on the play.
“I just step up for my teammate and I think everybody would do the same if it were happening to me or [Matt Hendricks],” Ovechkin said. “Everybody going to do the same thing.”
But in coming to his teammate’s defense, Ovechkin fired up the Verizon Center crowd and seemingly his teammates. Roars followed every clear on the ensuing penalty kill, and fans got even more into the game when Jason Chimera fought McClement late in the first.
“As players and as teammates, we have no problem taking those penalties and have no problem killing those ones off,” Brouwer said. “It’s those bad stick penalties that usually bite you.”
It took a little more time for the Caps to turn that energy into goals. When they did, they cruised.
Martin Erat scored his first goal since being traded from the Nashville Predators, Brouwer his 17th of the season.
Ovechkin added his league-leading 28th for good measure, a goal that was a reward for his actions earlier in the game.
“Obviously Alex has really led our team, and you see it every night now,” coach Adam Oates said. “You saw his energy tonight. Obviously every team that we play they have to focus on him.”
That the Maple Leafs broke up Holtby’s shutout with a third-period goal was nothing more than an inconvenience. It was not a the beginning of another blown lead but a hiccup in a convincing victory.
“I think we’re playing good right now,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We’ve got everything going: power play, five-on-five and penalty kill. If we get that going, it gives you confidence. I feel like we’re playing the right way, and that’s the most important.”