Washington Capitals\' Alex Ovechkin, right, of Russia, celebrates his goal with Karl Alzner (27) as Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Vesa Toskala, of Finland, stands in front of the ent during the second period of an NHL hockey game Sunday, Dec. 28, 2008, in Washington. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Nick Wass
WASHINGTON - Brooks Laich quickly forgave Alex Ovechkin for not passing the puck as Washington Capitals teammates approached an empty net in the final minute of a 4-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday night.
After all, Laich was satisfied to have scored twice already.
And he was pleased that the Capitals wrapped up yet another victory, one that moved them into second place in the Eastern Conference, behind Boston.
"We got back to the bench, he said, 'Sorry,"' Laich said. "And I was like, 'No, you've got to go put it in the net. The game's more important."'
Ovechkin added that easy, late goal to the tiebreaker he scored with 10 seconds left in the second period, raising his season total to 25 goals.
Laich, meanwhile, is up to 10 after his first two-goal game since March helped the Capitals improve their home record to an East-leading 15-1-1. Their 10-point lead atop the Southeast Division is their largest margin since March 2001.
Five of Laich's goals have come in the past eight games, following a chat with coach Bruce Boudreau.
The gist of that conversation?
"He's such a good skater and he's fearless and he's got a good shot," Boudreau said. "So why doesn't he use his best attributes and shoot the puck and go to the net?"
Laich followed the instructions.
"I'm working just as hard as I was before. Just sometimes they go in, sometimes they don't," the forward said. "Right now, they're going in. It's fun when they're going in."
Niklas Hagman put Toronto ahead 1-0 in the first period with his ninth goal of the season.
Jose Theodore made 23 saves to win his third consecutive start for Washington, his first such streak since signing a US$9 million, two-year deal in the off-season as a free agent. He's been splitting starts, but Brent Johnson is sidelined now with a hip injury.
"When you do play, you get in a rhythm," Theodore said. "I always say the best way to get in a groove is to play, even when things are not going well."
Everything seems to be going just right for the Capitals at home, where they have won six games in a row. When you add in a six-game home winning streak at the end of last season, they have won 21 of their past 23 games in Washington.
On Sunday, when former Capitals star Mike Gartner's No. 11 jersey was retired during a pre-game ceremony, a sellout crowd of 18,277 showed up, many wearing the team colour red.
Attendance is up about 33 per cent for the Capitals compared to this time last season.
"If there's 18,000 people pushing you, you want to play good in front of them," Boudreau said. "You see them at the rink every day, all saying how much it means to them. It's a reason to keep playing hard."
It doesn't hurt to have reigning NHL MVP and scoring champion Ovechkin, either, of course.
"Everything that's said about Alex - I mean, until he writes a new chapter next game - has been said," Boudreau said. "It's why he's the MVP and hopefully will be again."
Sunday's game was tied 1-1 late in the second period, when the Maple Leafs gave away the puck. Ovechkin collected a pass from teammate Milan Jurcina near the blue-line and, as a defenceman approached, flicked a blink-and-you-missed-it wrist shot past goalie Vesa Toskala.
"It came back to haunt us," Toronto coach Ron Wilson said. "When the best player in the league is on the ice - or one of the best - you can't mismanage the puck, and we did."
The Maple Leafs have lost three games in a row, getting outscored 16-4.
"We have to produce more goals," forward Nik Antropov said. "I don't think we're going to the net as hard as we can."
Notes: Gartner is the fourth Washington player to have his number retired. He ranks second in franchise history in goals (397), assists (392) and points. ... Toronto D Pavel Kubina played in his 700th NHL game. ... Leafs C Matt Stajan was scratched. He hurt his right eye when he was hit by a soccer ball while players warmed up before practice Saturday. ... The Maple Leafs are the fourth team in a row to shut out the Capitals in the first period. ... The Capitals assigned D Tyler Sloan to AHL affiliate Hershey. Defencemen Mike Green and Jeff Schultz returned to Washington's lineup after missing time with injuries. ... Washington has won 10 of 12 overall.