- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 25, 2012

TORONTO — It was over in 32 seconds.

In 32 seconds, the Washington Capitals erased some long-standing questions.


“We knew we weren’t playing good hockey, and we proved that tonight that we can win hockey games on the road, too,” winning goaltender Michal Neuvirth said.

It was as simple as that in a 4-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs, as a fast start silenced Air Canada Centre and gave Washington consecutive wins for the first time in over a month.

“It’s a big win,” said forward Keith Aucoin, who scored his first NHL goal since 2009 on Saturday. “We’ve had a tough stretch and to win two games back-to-back like that, we haven’t done that in a little while, so it was good, especially a hard road game tonight.”

There has been so much talk about scoring first that it started to sound like a broken record. Coach Dale Hunter kept pointing out how favorable the stats were when getting on the board first, and he was right. It just hadn’t happened on the road in five straight games.

Enter Marcus Johansson and his nifty wraparound goal past resident Toronto sieve goaltender James Reimer, who made 26 saves, before most fans even settled into their seats.

“It’s very, very good feeling for the whole team to get a lead right away. It’s much more comfortable to play with the lead than try to chase back,” Johansson said. “It’s a good feeling to get it right away and I think after that we just kept going and we never really stopped.”

By the time the game was four minutes old, Alexander Semin made Luke Schenn another Maple Leafs goat by scoring off the defenseman’s brutal turnover.

It was coast mode after that, as the free-falling Maple Leafs lost for the eighth time in nine games and the Capitals moved that much closer to first place in the Southeast Division. A shootout victory by the Florida Panthers against the Carolina Hurricanes is all that kept Washington from moving into a playoff spot.

“I still think if we put our heads down and win our games, you’re going to come out on top,” said Jeff Halpern, who scored for the first time in 33 games. “You hate to have to be in a position to start scoreboard watching. And obviously we would’ve liked it if Carolina would’ve held on and won that game, but we’re happy we were able to win.”

The Capitals know the race is tight and points are valuable at this time of the year, which is what made a recent slide so inexplicable and this weekend almost equally so. These were the kinds of games most expected from a preseason Stanley Cup favorite.

Saturday night specifically was an exercise in exorcising road demons by beating up on a team when it’s down. Washington went into “Hunter trapping hockey” but kept putting the puck past Reimer.

It was all rolling for the Capitals, who picked up just their third road win in eight chances during a month of February that included a lot of hotel and suitcase living. Washington enters Monday’s trade deadline on a high note and that could mean general manager George McPhee shifts into big-time buyer mode.

All thanks to a hot start and some hot goaltending from Neuvirth, who stopped 28 shots to win his second straight.

“We’ve been stressing it for weeks now that it’s important for us to get out there, get our game established early, and if we can that first goal, it means a lot,” forward Matt Hendricks said. “And we were able to do that tonight, just like [Friday] night, and it resulted in a win. Neuvy played very well again for us. It’s fun hockey.”

And given the Capitals‘ .700 points percentage at Verizon Center, the upcoming five-game homestand could provide even more reason for optimism moving forward. March’s road slate makes picking up points at home not just valuable but essential if the Capitals hope to get into the playoffs.

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