Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Cujo's Late Heroics Stops Caps

In a game that featured a lot of pregame buzz over Alex Ovechkin's recent on-ice celebration and facing an hot opponent desperate to earn another win to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive, it certainly was anything but business usual at the Air Canada Centre.

Twice the Toronto Maple Leafs took the lead, but twice the Capitals answered in the final minute of a period - including one that got Martin Gerber ejected in the final minute of regulation. But Gerber's replacement, Leafs icon Curtis Joseph, was stellar in relief, keeping the Caps off the board to earn Toronto a 3-2 shootout win.

Ovechkin, who in pregame wore a "Coach's Corner" t-shirt with "RESPECT" written on the back as a needle for Don Cherry's recent comments concerning his 50th goal celebration, scored his 51st goal of the year with a nifty move, but was unable to extend the shootout to end the night.

After the two teams played a scoreless first period, Phil Oreskovic earned his first NHL goal on a shot that John Erskine inadvertently redirected past Jose Theodore. Gerber, who shut down the Caps in his first appearance with the Leafs after getting claimed off waivers, made some nice saves to keep Washington off the board.

However, when Jamal Mayers gave the Caps their first power play of the game with one minute left in the second period, Ovechkin took advantage. He took a feed from Nicklas Backstrom and moved in past the defense, and beat Gerber with a nifty backhand with :20.3 left in the frame to even the score at one. And, after a lot of controversy over his "hot stick" celebration in Tampa, he didn't do anything special after scoring his 51st goal of the year.

The Caps nearly scored a big goal with three minutes left in the third, but a heads-up play by Matt Stajan to corral Alexander Semin's stick and kick a puck sitting in the goal crease out of danger. As play continued, Erskine got whistled for a hooking call, and the Maple Leafs made the Caps pay.

Pavel Kubina blasted a puck through with 2:03 left in regulation, leaving the Caps staring a tough loss in the face. However, with the goalie pulled, the Caps drew even on a strange goal, and one that got Gerber ejected.

With just under a minute to play, Backstrom moved behind the net and pushed the puck up front. Gerber had the puck between his legs, when Brooks Laich pushed the puck - and Gerber - in the net for the equalizer with :56.1 to play. Protesting the call, Gerber pushed the referee and linesman, and earned himself a misconduct as review upheld the score.

The Leafs were forced to bring in Curtis Joseph cold, but he made a nice stop on Ovechkin in the dying seconds of regulation and Mike Green the opening minute of overtime. He continued to be solid as Ovechkin drew a penalty in overtime, stopping nine shots in the last six minutes of the contest after coming off the bench to force the shootout.

Jeff Hamilton opened the shootout with a goal, and Joseph easily stopped Backstrom on Washington's first shot. Jason Blake and Semin were unsuccessful, and then after Theodore made one more save, it was up to Ovechkin to extend it. However, he couldn't beat Joseph, and Toronto earned the extra point.

Still, thanks to Laich's late tally, the Caps drew even with the Devils for second spot in the East, and also moved to within five points of clinching the Southeast crown - and two to earning a playoff spot by eliminating the Panthers from division title contention.

After a stretch where they played seven of eight away from Verizon Center, the Caps now play their last four home regular-season games starting Friday night when the Lightning visit Chinatown, when they get a chance to clinch their second consecutive spot with a win over Tampa.

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