Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson (50) eyes and block a shot off the sick of Washington Capitals center Marcus Johansson (90) as Maple Leafs defenseman Carl Gunnarsson (36) helps defend during the first period of an NHL hockey game on Sunday, March 11, 2012, in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
WASHINGTON - After their third straight victory, the Washington Capitals were asking about the score from another game, curious to see whether they had reclaimed first place in the Southeast Division.
It turns out they hadn't. While the Capitals were shutting out the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-0 on Sunday, Florida was beating Carolina by the same score, keeping the Panthers one point ahead of Washington.
Given the way the season has gone, that'll do for now. Over the last 12 games, the four-time defending division champions have lost three, won three, then lost three more, then won three more—all the while moving up to eighth place in the Eastern Conference, four points ahead of Buffalo and Winnipeg.
"It's always nice when you're back-and-forth, back-and-forth, and you're still in it," Alex Ovechkin said. "It's nice when you know, like, the season's not over."
Ovechkin was kept off the scoreboard against the Maple Leafs, but Michal Neuvirth made 23 saves for his third shutout of the season, and Brooks Laich and Matthieu Perreault scored as the Capitals carried over the momentum from Saturday's win at Boston and piled on the misery of a fading playoff contender.
"Big—really big—48 hours," Laich said.
Jonas Gustavsson made 21 saves for the Maple Leafs, who have lost four straight and 10 of 11, their fortunes barely changed in the five games since the change in coaches from Ron Wilson to Randy Carlyle. They trail the Capitals by eight points.
Toronto was shut out in both of its weekend games, losing 1-0 after a shootout at home to Philadelphia on Saturday night. Joffrey Lupul, sidelined by a separated shoulder, is sorely missed.
"Are we sacrificing risk hockey for offence? Yeah, I would agree with that," Carlyle said. "I believe that the teams that play better defence, usually the offence comes around. We are starving for offence right now; we need a bounce to go our way. It's not like we are not creating quality scoring chances; we are creating them."
Laich created his scoring chance by doing his homework. He watched Toronto's game against the Flyers on Saturday night and noticed how Jake Gardiner had a tendency to make a casual no-look drop passes in the neutral zone.
So when the Maple Leafs went on the power play in the first period, Laich slipped in behind Gardiner and picked off the pass, then went in to score on the short-handed breakaway.
"We do the same play," Washington coach Dale Hunter said. "It's a little high risk, so if you read it right, you get breakaways off of it. ... (Laich) is watching it to learn from it, and you pick up anything. He wants to win, and he's kind of like a coach."
Laich's goal gave the Capitals a 1-0 lead for the fourth straight game—a reversal from a recent slump when the other teams kept scoring first.
Perreault added a cushion in the first minute of the third period, putting in the rebound after Gustavsson made a kick save on shot by Alexander Semin.
Neuvirth did the rest, getting his seventh career shutout in his 100th NHL game. He got the start after Tomas Vokoun won the previous two games.
"Both guys are ready to go," Hunter said. "And that's good for me."
Notes: Washington now heads on a five-game road trip against the New York Islanders, Winnipeg, Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia. ... Capitals D Mike Green served the second game of his three-game suspension for his hit on Tampa Bay's Brett Connolly. ... Maple Leafs F Mike Brown missed his third game in four with a leg injury.