While they were able to prevent Alexander Ovechkin from scoring a history-making 801st career goal, the Maple Leafs’ defense gave up too many high-danger chances and the offense was unable to overcome a strong goaltending effort from Charlie Lindgren in a 5-2 defeat to the Capitals on Saturday night.

Your game in 10:

1.  The first period set the tone for what kind of game this was going to be: fast-paced, offensive, firewagon hockey. Chances were exchanged at both ends, with Toronto’s first good look coming off the rush from David Kämpf, who worked his way in tight and attempted a deke on Washington goalie Charlie Lindgren but couldn’t tuck it home.

The Capitals were led in the early going by the Ovechkin line with Conor Sheary and Dylan Strome, which had the Leafs hemmed in several times but couldn’t get one by Ilya Samsonov, who was playing his first game in Washington since leaving the Caps organization.

The best chance for the Leafs to notch the opener came from the second line. Denis Malgin rang the post, a point shot created a juicy rebound and empty-net look for Mitch Marner that was too hot to handle, and then a slot chance for John Tavares was shut down by Lindgren.

It was a sign of things to come, even though the game was evenly contested and both goalies appeared locked in.

2.   Washington scored the opening goal just past the halfway point of the first period on an odd-looking play. Sonny Milano flipped the puck off the side of the net and Ilya Samsonov, and then defenseman Erik Gustafsson skated up and poked it past the side of the Leafs goaltender. The puck skidded across the goal line and eventually fluttered in:

It was the first of two odd-looking goals that Samsonov allowed in this game and the beginning of a great night for Gustafsson.

I want to talk about Milano briefly here; he’s the one who left the puck on the doorstep for the accelerating defender on the 1-0 goal, and he had a stellar night overall. In 20 games this season, Milano now has a 3-11-14 line in under 14 minutes of ice time per night. For a player who was on the waiver wire and got little interest from NHL teams in the summer, Milano is a quality NHL player — one with limitations, yes, but he’s at 48 points in 86 games over this season and last. That’s a 46-per-82-game scoring pace, and yet he was on the island of misfit toys in the summer and eventually signed for a league minimum $750,000 cap hit. Ridiculous then and ridiculous now, even with the injury question marks.

3.   The Leafs responded well to Washington drawing first blood, creating three A+ chances before one eventually found the back of the net. The first was a cross-seam pass from Rasmus Sandin to Alex Kerfoot which Lindgren shut down by shooting across with effortless agility. That was followed up moments later by a 2v1 rush for the Leafs with Kerfoot and Engvall, which Lindgren also stonewalled.

The Leafs then underwent a partial line change before finally, the third time was the charm:

A good pass from Auston Matthews tee’d up William Nylander for goal #18, leaving him with solid odds of hitting 20 by the end of the calendar year.

4.    William Nylander wasn’t done getting looks in the first period. He went on a partial breakaway not long after his goal and missed the net. The Leafs were buzzing, but the air quickly came out of their balloon.

Washington defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk — seldom ever an offensive threat — patiently carried the puck into the zone and uncorked a weak wrist shot, one that seemed to be angling towards the middle of the crease off of his stick. Samsonov set up correctly, but the puck deflected off of Mark Giordano‘s stick and beat him short side:

At first look, I thought this was a heinous goal against Samsonov. On second blush, the deflection makes it tricky, but that’s still a save the goalie needs to come up with. It was one of two frustrating turning points in the game where it felt like the Leafs were in command only for Washington to score a quick-strike goal and wrest control back.

Toronto generated several more looks before the period was up, including a nearly two-minute-long offensive zone shift with a change in between, starting with the David Kämpf line and ending with the Auston Matthews line, but Lindgren held his own.

The Leafs went to a power play to end the first period, but they didn’t get much in the way of quality looks before the horn sounded. The opening 20 concluded with the Leafs down 2-1 and the balance of play stacking up pretty evenly, although high-danger chances tilted in Washington’s favour at 5v5.

5.   Early goals to begin periods were a theme in this game, and Washington’s first of that description was also Erik Gustafsson’s second of the game. While the previously-discussed Sonny Milano picked up his third assist of the night on this goal, this one was all Evgeny Kuznetsov. The crafty play-making Russian centerman showed off his brilliant vision, cutting through the offensive zone and then flipping a backhander to Gustafsson, the weak-side D sliding down:

Mitch Marner was just a little bit late to react defensively to the back-post threat, Rasmus Sandin wasn’t in a good stick position after getting twisted around on the play, and Gustafsson made no mistake, leaving Samsonov with no chance.

While we’re on the topic of Marner, I thought this was a weaker showing from him one game after the point streak ended. Possibly factoring into his performance: He was stung by a blistering shot in the shin early on in the game and struggled to get off the ice. He didn’t seem to be as electric or effective after that. A day or two of rest should help what is probably a bruised leg.

6.    The Leafs were on their heels for the next few minutes after that goal, with Connor Sheary dishing a great pass to Ovechkin, who put the shot wide. A momentum-flipping event went in the Leafs’ favor immediately afterward.

A splendid shift from Auston Matthews on the defensive end turned into a goal on the offensive end. First, AM34’s good defensive stick on Kuznetsov helped TJ Brodie break up a Caps’ rush before he moved up ice to receive a nice stretch pass from Conor Timmins. Matthews moved in 1v4 against the Capitals and attempted an unorthodox half-slap shot that beat Lindgren (a goal the netminder likely wants back):

Matthews continues to play better and better at 5v5, rounding more into the dominant form we are accustomed to, while Timmins collected another point on the pass through the neutral zone for his sixth assist in as many games.

Each of the Leafs’ three defensive pairs had issues dealing with the speed and aggression that Washington’s offense featured tonight, but I thought the Brodie – Timmins pair had the least number of memorable defensive issues. The numbers agreed, with the Leafs owning >60% of the high-danger and scoring chances at 5v5 with those two on the ice. After another week of viewings, call me a fan of Conor Timmins and what he’s brought to the Toronto lineup.

7.   Alex Ovechkin got involved with Timmins on a play that made its rounds on hockey Twitter, with Ovi leveling Timmins into the Toronto bench, and Ovechkin then got a rush chance with Anthony Mantha, one Washington misplayed by passing too much. After that point, the Leafs seized the upper hand in the game, trying to close the gap in this 3-2 contest.

Joey Anderson made a great pass to Rasmus Sandin off the wall, but Lindgren shut him down before making a phenomenal save on John TavaresDavid Kämpf‘s line got another look, Pontus Holmberg put a scoring chance high and over top, and finally, William Nylander fed Michael Bunting for a good look that was also sent high.

It was an all-out assault in the latter half of the second period, and only the brilliance of Lindgren and some missed nets from the Leafs kept Washington in front. The metrics via Natural Stat Trick were phenomenal for Toronto in the second period: They owned 73% of shot attempts, 70% of shots, 67% of scoring chances, 61.54% of high-danger chances, and 64.5% of the expected goals at 5v5.

Only a strange play created by Sandin nearly shooting on his own goalie, giving Washington two looks in tight, interrupted what was essentially a full 10 minutes of offensive-zone time for Toronto. They trailed 3-2 going into the third, but I found myself firmly believing that no matter how good Lindgren was, 20 more minutes like the preceding 10 wouldn’t just tie it but earn the Leafs the two points.

8.    Unfortunately, that third-period push never got much of a chance to get going. A second massive momentum-swinging event happened right at the start of the third.

Mark Giordano‘s pass from his own blue line right off the opening faceoff was jumped by Washington defender Nick Jensen, who led the Capitals’ rush into the offensive zone. Jensen powered the puck in deep before it was left for Garnett Hathaway to scoop up and wire right by Samsonov:

Again, not a bad goal against Samsonov, but one the Leafs probably needed a big save on to win this game given the choppy effort defensively. It was an incredibly frustrating moment given how well Toronto closed the second period. Looking to carry over the momentum, the Leafs were suddenly facing a two-goal deficit again before they could even blink.

Credit to Nick Jensen, though, who has blossomed since coming to Washington several seasons back in a trade with Detroit. He was a legitimately elite defensive defenseman last year, and I thought he had a very strong 200-foot game tonight, making plays at both ends of the ice. Washington was aggressive about activating its defense, and it paid dividends for them offensively.

9.   Speaking of activating defensemen, Erik Gustafsson scored a hat trick less than four minutes after the Hathaway goal. It was Evgeny Kuznetsov who made it happen again in the midst of a several-minute stretch where he was firing on all cylinders.

Kuznetsov made a great pass to set up Orlov, who Samsonov shut down. Not long after, Orlov wheeled around the offensive zone, and in a very similar play to the earlier goal involving Kuznetsov, dished a pass to the weak-side D sliding down. Gustafsson picked up the pass and went bar-down on Samsonov:

There was a bit of confusion at first about whether the goal actually went in, but indeed it did. The light went on, and the replay confirmed it.

The story of the night for the Leafs’ team defense was not that they were getting caved in much or hemmed in all that consistently. They dictated the body of play at 5v5 for much of the contest. Rather, the issue was that when Washington created looks, they created A+ scoring chances.

The passing of Kuznetsov and the progressive movement of the Capitals defensemen in the offensive zone gave the Toronto defensive coverage all kinds of trouble, leading to breakdowns in the in-zone defensive structure too often.

Case in point: The Leafs owned >60% of shot attempts and scoring chances at 5v5, yet high-danger chances were nearly even (15-13). Combine that with Charlie Lindgren shutting down many of the Leafs’ HD chances while Samsonov couldn’t quite keep up at the other end, and that was all you need to know about tonight’s game.

10.    The Maple Leafs didn’t create much in the final 15 minutes after falling behind 5-2. There weren’t many penalties called in general, but the Leafs did go to one more power play, creating a few decent looks but nothing too notable. William Nylander and Michael Bunting made a few plays, but there was little happening, and the team never seriously threatened to make the game interesting again.

As the minutes ticked away, Sheldon Keefe never pulled his goalie, denying Alex Ovechkin a chance to tie Gordie Howe. That was all she wrote in the Leafs’ first three-goal loss of the season.

If we take out empty-net goals against, it’s actually the first time the Leafs have lost by more than a single goal since October 29 against the Kings seven weeks ago. It was an off night, even if — similar to Thursday — the Leafs did control play for large stretches.

For Ilya Samsonov, it was a bitter return to Washington, allowing a season-high five goals on 28 shots. I don’t think he was terrible, even if his GSAx number is rough (NST recorded it at -2.7). He did come up with a number of great stops. That said, he needed a save on the first two Washington goals, and those obviously played a huge role in the outcome. It was the end of Samsonov’s multi-game shutout streak, the first time he’s allowed a goal in the month of December(!), and the first time he’s posted a save percentage of <.900 in a game since that above-mentioned Kings game.

If nothing else, tonight’s game and Thursday’s game reinforced to me how strong — and how much better than the West — the Eastern Conference is this season. Washington entered this game outside the East’s playoff picture, but they showed they can play. They have playmakers like Evgeny Kuznetsov, scorers like Ovechkin, decent depth, and good goaltending. They are not the Caps of old, and the current focus of the franchise is on getting the Great 8 to the record, but if they make the playoffs, it is not a team to overlook. They haven’t played a game with Nicklas Backstrom or Tom Wilson in the lineup yet this season.

At this point in time, I’d argue that eight of the 10 best teams in the NHL are in the East, and I would probably pick several outside the Eastern playoff picture in a series against several teams that are currently in the West’s playoff picture. Leafs fans may be focused on avoiding the Lightning in the first round again, but the truth is that there will be no easy possible playoff opponents in this East. As tonight showed, even in the regular season, there are few easy nights when two teams in the East square off.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts