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Capitals get third straight win

BY ZAC BOYER

WASHINGTON—It was a subtle move, for sure—one nearly any casual observer may have overlooked when watching Toronto’s Jake Gardiner.

Brooks Laich doesn’t take things casually. When he returned home from the Washington Capitals’ one-goal victory at Boston late Saturday night and turned on the tape of the Maple Leafs’ game earlier that day against Philadelphia, he noticed Gardiner, the team’s top rookie, recklessly left a drop pass for a teammate hanging precariously open on the weak side.

With that observation tucked away in his memory, Laich took to the ice Sunday at the Verizon Center with his Capitals teammates. And when Gardiner came up the left side midway through the first period and recklessly left a drop pass too far in front of Phil Kessel, Laich pounced.

A quick scoop, a turn and a dozen steps the other way, Laich turned Gardiner’s carelessness into a goal—shorthanded, nonetheless—to help the Capitals take a

2–0 victory over Toronto and extend a winning streak to three games.

“I think we’re finding our identity,” said Laich, whose goal was his third in the last four games, his 14th of the year and only the Capitals’ third shorthanded one of the season. “I think we’re comfortable with our systems and we’re starting to elevate our game. Players are playing better and we’ve had some consistency with the lineup. You know, things are going well.”

They need to go well. Washington (35–28–6) is now set for a streak of five consecutive road games beginning Tuesday against the New York Islanders and will then play four opponents who, if not already in the playoff picture, are looming just outside it.

There are 13 games remaining in the season, and after Florida’s victory over Carolina later Sunday, the Capitals remain one point back of the Southeast Division-leading Panthers and still in the No. 8 hole in the playoff chase.

It’s the right time for the team to be rounding into form. Mathieu Perreault scored the Capitals’ other goal, a knock-in on a rebound of Alexander Semin’s slapshot from the point 42 seconds into the third period, and Michal Neuvirth stopped 23 shots for his third shutout of the season in his 100th game.

Laich’s goal, though, seemed to be the turning point against a freefalling Toronto (30–31–8), which has now lost 10 of its last 11 and is 1–4 under coach Randy Carlyle, who was hired to replace Ron Wilson on March 2.

The forward also scored a power play goal late in the second period of the 4–3 victory at Boston on Saturday, snapping an 0-for-18 skid that spanned the previous seven games, which may bode well for the two special teams units.

“[It’s] a game-changer,” Perreault said, speaking of Laich’s goal. “Obviously, they’ve got a power play, so you think they’re going to get a goal. You try not to get a goal against you, and then all of a sudden, you get one for us, and I think that was huge. From that point on, we didn’t give them much.”

Jonas Gustavsson, making his fifth consecutive start in goal—including the scoreless shootout loss Saturday to the Flyers—stopped 21 shots. The Maple Leafs played a generally sloppy game, and their speed, one of their greatest assets, was taken away early.

“I thought the guys did a good job blocking shots and picking up the right guys and they did a good job defensively, and when they did catch a break, Neuvy stood tall,” coach Dale Hunter said.

Washington, now 21–0 when leading after two periods, will not return home until March 23, when it faces Winnipeg. The Jets, whom the Capitals first visit Friday, are currently four points back in their quest for the last spot in the playoffs. If Washington takes care of business on the road trip, that return home will be much less important.

“We don’t really want to look at other teams,” Perreault said. “We’d rather focus on what we do. For sure we’ve got to look at it a little bit, but if we keep winning games like that, we don’t have to worry about anything, really, just to get into the playoffs.”

Zac Boyer: 540/374-5440

zboyer@freelancestar.com

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