Saturday in Canada is never complete unless the Maple Leafs are playing, and tomorrow night the fast and furious Washington Capitals come to town, after teaching the Tampa Bay Lightening a lesson the night before and whipping them at home 4-2.
Russian sniper Alexander Ovechkin leads the Caps’ will bring the same high-powered offence into the ACC Saturday night to try to blast the Leafs in dramatic style. Outside of the Caps’ captain, the key matchup with be against Evgeny Kuznetsov vs. Leafs’ defense. Can they keep him off the score sheet?
Kuznetsov so far has 24 points, and that’s four more than Alexander Ovechkin for the team lead in scoring. Ovechkin just reached a momentous level, of being the highest scoring Russian born player in the NHL, beating previous record holder, Sergei Federov with 484 goals.
His countryman, Kuznetsov, centres a powerful second line that contains Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams. This line will prove to be a handful for the Leafs’ second defensive pairing of Dion Phaneuf and Jake Gardiner.
The Caps’ top line winged by Ovechkin, scored just his second power-play goal of the season Wednesday in a win over Winnipeg surprisingly enough, but his linemate and centre Niklas Backstrom is helping out the line’s performance, alongside winger T.J. Oshie who are giving good support.
In his last five games, Backstrom has gotten six points as the Capitals have been an impressive 4-1-0. He also got an assist on goal No. 484 for Ovie, that turned out being a historic goal for the now, the highest-scoring Russian born player in NHL history.
The Cap’s goaltending is also solid, as Braden Holtby is one of the top goalies in the NHL right now. He has a 13-4 record, with a 1.95 GAA and .924 save percentage, and he’ll put that record to the test at the Air Canada Centre tomorrow night.
There is a local boy also on the team who wants to make an impact in his first game played in hometown Toronto; Tom Wilson will play on the Capitals’ fourth line, filling the enforcer role. In the last two years, he has become one of the best agitators in the NHL. He hasn’t scored a goal yet this season but is a key part of a very strong Capitals team.
On the Toronto side, the team has played very well, and as many local experts have noted, maybe even above their talent. The biggest story right now is not only their strong play, but the situation in their net.
Their main guy, their supposed no. 1 goalie, Jonathan Bernier hasn’t started a game in nearly two weeks. He’s had one crease appearance so far in November with December fast approaching. Bernier has yet to win a game (0-7-1) and owns the fourth-worst save percentage among qualifying goaltenders this season (.895). The 27-year-old goaltender has just a single win in his last 18 appearances in Toronto’s net.
What has been a great surprise is the unexpected backup to the surging Maple Leafs’, starter James Reimer, who has won some key games for the rebuilding Leafs. Bernier is thus playing very little these days, and is forced to sit and wait for his next opportunity to redeem himself from a season that started off poorly.
“You look around the league and that’s part of hockey giving up bad goals, and you’re going to give up bad goals and on some nights guys will find a way to score more than the other team,” Bernier said. “It didn’t happen for me at the beginning and when Reims played, he played well.”
Unlike Reimer, who’s posted an amazing .949 save percentage in November, Bernier has been unable to lock it down after bad goals against. “Every time you get a chance to be in it’s a privilege, and to me it’s not going to change even if it would’ve been my fifth in a row,” Bernier said. “I haven’t played much, but it’s going to be the same thing for me.”
Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said Reimer was deemed ready to play after going through a full practice today, since he didn’t practice this week due to a mysrerious ‘lower body injury’. He was held out of one battle drill late in the proceedings though, so he might still be questionable for tomorrow night’s game.
“I guess the way I look at is: I’m not the doctor. I’m not the therapist. I’m not the chiropractor. I’m not the media. I’m the coach and when they tell me a guy’s available I put him in if he’s ready to go,” Babcock said. Babcock shot down any rumours of James Reimer missing any games, saying ‘you’re a hockey player, you play hockey.’
Reimer, while preparing to play against the Capitals, he seemed less certain than his coach. He had a lengthy conversation with the team’s director of rehabilitation, Ryan Morrison today, before taking part in the 50-minute practice.
“We’ll see how he feels [Saturday] and then I assume go from there,” Morrison said.
If Reimer is in and healthy, the fiesty Leafs have a chance to challenge the tired incoming Caps. If played right, they can get two points and that is what Babcock will push the team to do. We think on a Saturday night in Toronto, they can.
Our Pick: Leafs over Caps, 4-2