Comfortably atop the NHL, the Washington Capitals realize their amazing regular season won't mean anything without some playoff success. They made moves to improve those chances, with one sending longtime center Brooks Laich to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Laich faces his former team three days after the deal as the league-worst Maple Leafs try to hand the Capitals a rare home loss Wednesday night.
Washington (46-12-4) leads the race for the Presidents' Trophy by 13 points with 20 games left in the regular season. Knowing that the pressure will mount in the playoffs after failing to reach the conference finals in seven of the past eight seasons, the Capitals made several deals before Monday's trade deadline.
Perhaps the most significant involved Laich going to Toronto in a package that returned rugged forward Daniel Winnik on Sunday. Laich spent 10-plus seasons in Washington, collecting 133 goals and 191 assists in 742 games, which rank eighth in franchise history.
The center makes his return to the nation's capital already after his Maple Leafs debut ended in a 2-1 loss to Tampa Bay on Monday.
"I don't know if I am looking forward to it, and I don't know if I'm not," Laich said. "Still, the emotions are pretty heavy. Very fortunate for my time there. Really appreciative of the fans and the support that I've received in the last couple days and certainly over the 12 years, and just the friendships.
"There's going to be a lot of mixed emotions. Gonna have to try to control myself a little bit."
Winnik has been through this before, playing for six teams in nine seasons. He could make his Capitals debut after he was scratched for Tuesday's 3-2 win over Pittsburgh in a preview of a possible first-round playoff matchup.
While Washington improved to 19-2-1 in the last 22 at home, coach Barry Trotz wasn't happy with the team having to rally from a 2-0 deficit. It's surrendered the first goal in eight of the past nine games, but the Capitals have been able to win six of them.
"We're going to have to re-adjust our alarm clocks or whatever," Trotz said. "The starts, if we don't get that corrected ... That's gotta come from within. I've tried for awhile to get those starts all year. I'm putting it back in the room. I'm throwing it on them."
Evgeny Kuznetsov has 27 points in his last 20 games, scoring five goals over the past eight with one in each of the last two. The center has only managed three assists in six career meetings with Toronto.
Alex Ovechkin regularly torments the Maple Leafs. He has 31 goals and 25 assists in 38 career matchups, collecting seven points in the past four. He had two before netting the only successful shootout attempt in a 3-2 home win over Toronto on Nov. 7.
The Caps have won five straight and are 10-1-1 in their last 12 home meetings with the Leafs. They've outscored them 16-6 while winning four straight overall.
Toronto (21-30-10) is having major problems defensively on the road, giving up an average of 3.92 goals while dropping 10 of its last 13.
Nazem Kadri ended his nine-game goal drought Monday, but he doesn't have a point in four straight road games after getting 12 in the prior 13.
The center hasn't produced a point in his past six visits to Washington, where the early focus will be on Laich's return.
"The fans will be great to him. He's been great to the Washington area," Trotz said.