WASHINGTON - Don't look now, but the Washington Capitals entered the all-star break only one point out of first place.
Their season seemingly kaput when coach Glen Hanlon was fired on Thanksgiving Day, the Capitals entered the long weekend by winning for the fifth time in six games. Brooks Laich and Viktor Kozlov scored, and Alex Ovechkin assisted on both goals in Thursday night's 2-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The win gave the Capitals a split of the home-and-home, back-to-back series against Toronto and moved them within a point of Southeast Division leader Carolina. Washington is the only NHL team not to lose consecutive games in regulation since Nov. 22, the day Bruce Boudreau took over for Hanlon.
"It doesn't surprise me that things are starting to snowball into success," defenceman Mike Green said. "He doesn't make it comfortable around here by any means to make us feel satisfied with what we've done. We want to keep going and making sure we're making strides."
The Capitals were the worst team in the league - with four fewer points than any other team - when Boudreau was summoned from AHL affiliate Hershey. Asked if he thought he'd be this close to first place so quickly, the coach said: "No, but that's where I want to be."
He paused, then added: "I want to be one point ahead."
Brent Johnson, giving Olie Kolzig a night off, made 31 saves for the Capitals as the offence that had been clicking so well struggled for the second consecutive night. Ovechkin had his six-game goal-scoring streak snapped, but he still leads the league with 38 goals and his two assists give him 13 points in his last seven games.
"They out-skated us," Boudreau said. "Our goalie won us the game. We were very opportunistic."
Boyd Devereaux scored for the Maple Leafs, who lost two more players to shoulder injuries.
On Wednesday, Alexei Ponikarovsky dislocated his right shoulder when he was rammed into the boards by Capitals defenceman Steve Eminger. Ponikarovsky will be out for six weeks.
On Thursday, both Alex Steen and Darryl Boyce were injured. Steen was knocked into the boards by Milan Jurcina in the first period, and Boyce crashed into the boards after catching a rut in the ice in the second period.
Coach Paul Maurice said Steen was day-to-day but would miss the first game after the all-star break. Maurice said Boyce had an injury similar to Ponikarovsky's. Both will be re-evaluated when they get back to Toronto.
"We're seeing a more physical brand of hockey being allowed in the game," Maurice said. "I don't necessarily have a problem with that. I prefer that we're not carrying guys off the ice for weeks at a time, but there's certainly more hitting in our game now."
The Maple Leafs are 1-1 since general manager John Ferguson was fired and replaced by Cliff Fletcher on an interim basis. Toronto has lost 11 of 13 on the road.
Laich's first-period goal, a redirect of Ovechkin's slap shot on a power play, was the only score for two periods. Devereaux tied the game on a similar play, directing Pavel Kabina's shot into the net, early in the third period.
But the Capitals needed only 36 seconds to retake the lead. Ovechkin's shot from the right circle yielded a long rebound off goaltender Vesa Toskala, and Kozlov was left uncovered in front of the net to convert.
The Maple Leafs played most of the final two minutes with a two-man advantage. Washington's David Steckel was sent off for boarding with 2:18 to play, and Toskala emptied the net with about 1:40 remaining. But the Capitals kept clearing the puck beyond the blue line, keeping Toronto from mounting a sustained attack.
"It seemed like forever," Boudreau said of the 6-on-4 advantage. "It shows character. Sometimes you need the skill guys to come through, sometimes you need the workers to come through. That's what makes teams win."
Notes: The Capitals' streak of games without back-to-back regulation losses stands at 29, the franchise's longest since a 49-game span at the end of the 1999-00 season. ... The Capitals signed LW Donald Brashear to a one-year contract extension.