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Neuvirth strong in Caps win over Leafs

The SportsXchange

WASHINGTON -- Washington Capitals goaltender Michal Neuvirth had not played a game in so long, he said Friday night's contest against the Toronto Maple Leafs felt like his first in the NHL.

"I was nervous as (heck)," Neuvirth said after stopping 32 of 34 shots and earning first star of the Capitals' 3-2 win in front of a sellout crowd at the Verizon Center. "My girlfriend told me, 'Just do what you do,' and I did."

Playing in his first game since Nov. 22, Neuvirth was solid the entire night, making glove saves on left wingers James van Riemsdyk early and Mason Raymond late to preserve his first win since Nov. 2.

Capitals right winger Joel Ward snapped a 2-2 tie and provided the game-winner 11:51 into the third period when he scored six seconds after right winger David Clarkson came out of the penalty box after serving a tripping minor.

Right winger Alex Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom also scored for the Capitals, but it was Neuvirth who received the most attention after the game. The 25-year-old netminder was injured before his last scheduled start Nov. 29, when he stepped on a puck during warmups.

He had been a healthy scratch in favor of rookie call-up Philipp Grubauer in 11 straight games before Friday.

"I thought he played a great game," Capitals coach Adam Oates said. "He had to wait, but he made the best of his practice time. Good for him."

Van Riemsdyk and right winger Phil Kessel, each of whom will represent the United States at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, scored for the Maple Leafs, who lost for the fourth straight time.

The Leafs have just two regulation wins in their last 25 games.

Before facing the Capitals, the Maple Leafs surrendered 18 goals in three straight losses, putting pressure on coach Randy Carlyle to turn things around.

"We've been begging pleading, kicking, kissing, whatever we can do to try and find a way to play with confidence," Carlyle said. "This might be one of the better games we've played in a month. We showed desperation. We showed that we care."

After a scoreless first period, Ovechkin opened the scoring with his 32nd goal of the season at 6:39 of the second period. Former Maple Leafs center Mikhail Grabovski feathered a perfect cross-ice feed for Ovechkin, who leads the NHL in goals.

The Leafs tied it 2:29 later on van Riemsdyk's redirect of Kessel's shot. The goal was van Riemsdyk's 16th goal of the season.

The Leafs grabbed their first lead of the game 54 seconds into the third period when Kessel beat Neuvirth high to the short side for his 21st goal of the season.

Backstrom knotted the score at 2 at 4:36 when he stripped Toronto defenseman Cody Franson of the puck behind the net and banked in a pass intended for teammate Brooks Laich off the skate of Leafs defenseman Jay McClement for his 11th goal of the season.

The Capitals entered the game with the No. 1 power play in the NHL and the Maple Leafs were ranked 27th on the penalty kill.

Those numbers worked in Washington's favor midway through the third period when Ward positioned himself in the high slot took a pass from center Marcus Johansson and pounded a shot through the pads of Toronto goaltender Jonathan Bernier for his 13th goal of the season.

"I knew I didn't get a good crack at it," said Ward, whose mother traveled from Toronto to see the game, "but I got enough of it to go in."

The win was the second in a row for the Capitals, who will try to make it three straight Sunday afternoon when they face the Buffalo Sabres.

The Maple Leafs will try to end their four-game slide when they face the New Jersey Devils on Sunday.

"There's always going to be challenges throughout the year and it's how you respond to that," van Riemsdyk said. "There's going to be no sulking done by us or throwing a pity party feeling sorry for ourselves. This is a step in the right direction."

NOTES: The Capitals and Maple Leafs entered the game as two of the loosest defensive teams in the NHL, with Washington allowing 34.3 shots per game (29th in the NHL) and Toronto allowing 36.4 (30th). The previous time the two teams met, the Capitals attempted 101 shots, 50 of them reaching the net. ... Capitals rookie G Philipp Grubauer, who stopped 33 shots in a 4-3 win in Tampa on Thursday night, was a healthy scratch. G Braden Holtby served as a backup. ... Capitals C Mikhail Grabovski played 340 games for Toronto before they bought him out and the Capitals signed him last summer. ... Capitals D Mike Green entered the game with four points (2 goals, 2 assists) in his last four games and was one goal from his 100th in the NHL. ... The Capitals continue their three-game homestand Sunday afternoon against the Buffalo Sabres. They conclude the home stretch on Tuesday night against the San Jose Sharks. ... The Maple Leafs return home to face the New Jersey Devils on Sunday, then visit the Boston Bruins on Tuesday.
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