TORONTO — James Reimer began to wonder if the Toronto Maple Leafs could hold on and shut out the Washington Capitals.
It didn’t matter that they were being drastically outshot. When Alex Ovechkin scored late in the third period, Reimer tried to keep the negative thoughts from getting to him.
"You kind of tell ’em to screw off and just keep focus on the puck," Reimer said. "You can’t focus on the bad things or the negative things. All you can do is make that next save."
Reimer did that again and again as the Leafs gave up 50 shots but beat the Capitals 2-1 in a shootout Saturday night at Air Canada Centre. James van Riemsdyk and Joffrey Lupul scored in the shootout to give Toronto (14-8-1) its third victory in four games.
Being outshot and winning has become a familiar refrain for the Leafs, but this one was about quality over quantity as far as what Reimer faced.
"Honestly it was more of them just throwing pucks at the net from everywhere," said Reimer, who made 49 saves and then stopped three of four in the shootout. "Our team did a great job of keeping the shots to the outside, and I just tried my best to control them. When I left some out there, obviously they were there to back me up."
Reimer naturally watched the shots pile up. Leafs coach Randy Carlyle pointed to back-to-back Washington power plays in the second period as the time the shot differential became so lopsided, but even considering that his team was out-shot 40-26 at even strength.
The 50 shots were a season high for the Capitals (12-10-2), as well as a season-high allowed by the Leafs.
"I think any time you get outshot, you look at it," said winger David Clarkson, who scored Toronto’s only goal of the night on the power play in the second period. "But there was also a lot of good things we were doing. There’s always things you can improve on, there’s things you can get better at. But the big thing is finding a way to win, and right now we’re doing that."
It doesn’t mean the Leafs were proud to be outshot 50-28, despite keeping so many of the Capitals’ attempts to the outside.
"Regardless of the quality of the shots, we’re never going to tell you that we want to give up 50," said defenceman Mark Fraser, who returned to the lineup after missing two games with an aggravated knee injury. "That’s probably a few too many for us to be happy with. But it was just nice that we could keep it off the scoreboard. Obviously Reims had a lot to do with that."
Reimer was in the zone, something defenceman Morgan Rielly said the 19,473 fans in the building could all notice. Carlyle was satisfied that his goaltender kept the Leafs in the game as Braden Holtby (27 saves) was brilliant at the other end.
"When you get into situations like tonight it was one where we needed the save and he continued to make them," Carlyle said of Reimer. "It’s a credit to him."
Reimer might just be starting to get the credit he deserves for his play this season. With his performance against the Capitals, he raised his save percentage to an NHL-best .947.
Even in the glow of an emotional shootout win that included stops on all-stars Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, Reimer wasn’t making too much of the save-percentage accomplishment.
"Obviously I believe in my ability and in my skill," Reimer said. "I try and work hard every day to be the best I can. Stats are stats. I think you could arguably say that (Henrik) Lundqvist was the best goalie in the league, and I don’t know where he is in save-percentage stats.
"It means something but it doesn’t mean everything, that’s for sure. It’s cool to be up there, but at the same time the most important thing is playing the best for your teammates. So whether that’s a .915 save or a .940 — whatever gets the job done."
Reimer and the Leafs got the job done for much of the night against Ovechkin, who was held to three shots before tying the score at one at the 15:50 mark of the third period. On his fourth shot, Washington’s captain fired a bouncing puck past Reimer for his league-leading 20th goal of the year.
"Lucky bounce, puck kind of stop and I have opportunity to shoot it and it goes in," said Ovechkin, who became just the third active player to put up at least 20 goals in each of his first nine NHL seasons.
Capitals coach Adam Oates didn’t believe the Leafs did anything "extra well" to shut down Ovechkin. He and Ovechkin expected the match-up with Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf.
It was on the penalty kill that the Leafs zeroed in on stopping Ovechkin. Carlyle said they changed their structure to take away Ovechkin’s shot, and it worked as the Capitals went 0 for 3 on the power play.
"On power play they put me in one position, they take me away but we don’t use it," Ovechkin said. "It’s blame on us of course."
No one was really to blame for a fluke injury to ex-Leafs centre Mikhail Grabovski late in the second when he suffered two cuts on the right side of his face after was sliced by Clarkson’s skate while falling to the ice. Grabovski was booed by the crowd for laying on the ice after getting cut and skating off quickly following a whistle, but there was a copious amount of blood coming from his face that fans did not see.
Grabovski needed 20 stitches but returned to the game early in the third. He said the play was his fault because he held on to the puck too long.
Ovechkin called Grabovski a "warrior" for returning. His coach agreed.
"Pretty scary play, actually," Oates said. "He came back, and he played a great game."
It was Grabovski’s first game back in Toronto since the Leafs bought him out over the summer. He had two shots in 16:18 of ice time.
In his 18:38, Clarkson had a far bigger influence on the game. His second goal of the season was a perfect redirection of defenceman Jake Gardiner’s point shot on the power play, and he did his job of getting under the skin of Capitals players all night.
Offensively, he was buzzing alongside linemates Lupul and Nazem Kadri well before scoring on the power play. Clarkson wondered as he had for the previous five or six games if he’d be rewarded.
"When you’re getting chances as a player or as a line or as a team it’s bound to finally go in for you," he said. "Biggest thing is us winning. Whether you score or not, it doesn’t matter who’s putting it in the net, when you win that’s all that matters."
NOTES – Toronto defenceman Paul Ranger was made a healthy scratch as Fraser returned to the lineup. Ranger had played all 22 games going in and had one goal, five assists and a plus-4 rating. … Martin Erat was scratched for Washington in favour of Eric Fehr, who took the penalty that set up Clarkson’s goal.