Even though his team was trailing after 40 minutes, Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle had a positive message for his team.
"Our message was there was a whole bunch of positives in the hockey game for us after two periods," Carlyle said. "So we couldn't dwell on what had happened. The only thing was we had to stay strong and persevere. Push ahead. Continue strong on the forecheck. Don't let up."
In the final period, Toronto took over.
Nikolai Kulemin and Matt Frattin scored third-period goals to give the Maple Leafs their first home win of the season with a 3-2 comeback victory over the struggling Washington Capitals on Thursday night.
Kulemin tied it 2-all at 7:40 of the third, poking in a puck that squeezed through Michal Neuvirth's legs following Michael Kostka's shot from the point. As the Washington goalie tried in vain to squeeze his pads, Kulemin reached behind and nudged the puck in for his first of the year.
Frattin made it 3-2, capping a nice passing play with Nazem Kadri at 9:53 by tapping in the puck for his fourth goal — and sixth point — in four games.
The Maple Leafs lived dangerously in the final minutes as the Capitals (1-5-1) pressed for a tying goal that never came.
"I'm sure everybody felt the same way in the building as the coaches did," Carlyle said. "Their stomach was in their throat in a few situations.
"But that's part of the game and we found a way to win the hockey game. The work ethic that they displayed tonight and the energy that they provided, now they're in trouble because they've done it for two games in a row and the coach is going to expect it every game."
James van Riemsdyk also scored for Toronto (4-3-0), which outshot Washington 40-22. The Maple Leafs had their chances to take control earlier in the game, but a lack of clinical finishing and a failure to convert numerous power-play opportunities frustrated them before 19,374 at the Air Canada Centre.
Toronto, which came into the game ranked 20th on the power play, went 1 for 8 with the man-advantage. There were no penalties in the third period.
"Tonight it was the early penalties that cost us," Washington coach Adam Oates said. "You spend so much energy killing penalties, you lose some of your juice later in the game."
Alex Ovechkin doubled his goal output for the season when he scored on the power play at 2:38 of the second period, drilling a low wrist shot through James Reimer from just outside the faceoff circle for a 2-1 lead.
"I saw it the whole way," Reimer confessed. "Obviously, that's one I'd like to have (back) but he's a good shooter with a tricky release."
Ovechkin had only one other shot on the night. Maple Leafs sniper Phil Kessel, meanwhile, had six shots and did everything but score.
Kessel, who has three assists in his first seven games, has failed to score on 33 shots this season in his bid for his 100th goal with Toronto.
"We got a win so it doesn't matter," Kessel said. "I'm trying hard. I'm getting chances. They're just not going in right now."
His drought continued in the first period as Neuvirth stoned him from in close during a 4-minute power play with Jason Chimera off for hooking and unsportsmanlike conduct.
Kessel's shot on the extended power play led to van Riemsdyk's goal as the big forward, stationed in front like a lamppost, tucked in the rebound for his fourth of the season at 8:19.
Joel Ward opened the scoring for Washington, which has yet to win on the road. Mike Ribeiro had two assists, upping his scoring total to one goal and seven assists.
Before the game, Ward noted on Twitter that baseball icon Jackie Robinson would have turned 94 on Thursday.
"Hope I represent the number well! 42," tweeted Ward, who wears the number in Robinson's honor.
The Capitals went ahead within the first 2 minutes of the game but then were assessed five straight penalties in the next 9 minutes and were outshot 15-7 in the first period. Toronto was on the power play for 6:11 of the first 20 minutes, managing to take advantage once.
"If you have to kill six or seven penalties every game, it's going to cost you," Ribeiro said.
Thanks to Ovechkin, the Caps led 2-1 midway through the game despite having only 10 shots.
The Maple Leafs showed Ovechkin little respect, with captain Dion Phaneuf bowling him over in the Washington crease in the first period. The Capitals star did not manage a shot on goal in the first period.
But the Caps jumped into the lead at 1:36 when Ribeiro, angling the puck from behind the goal, threaded a pass through several Toronto defenders to an unmarked Ward, who fired it in.
Kessel, who had five shots in the first 40 minutes, was somehow denied by Neuvirth midway through the second when he tucked a shot between his legs from in-close. Neuvirth did it again with a glove save in the third.
"The goals are going to come," Carlyle said. "He's just got to continue to keep working and not get down."
Neuvirth, who deserved a better result, also stopped van Riemsdyk on a late breakaway.
Clarke MacArthur (finger), Mike Komisarek (eye) and Mike Brown (shoulder) sat out for the Leafs.
NOTES: Ovechkin hasn't had an even-strength goal in his last 10 games, dating to the 2012 playoffs. ... Toronto claimed 6-foot-5, 230-pound forward Frazer McLaren off waivers from San Jose. The Maple Leafs also called up Marlies captain Ryan Hamilton and placed Brown on injured reserve after he hurt his shoulder in a fight Tuesday. ... Washington forward Brooks Laich, recovering from a groin injury sustained playing in Europe during the lockout, took part in the morning skate for the first time this season. ... Toronto's homestand continues Saturday against Boston and Monday against Carolina.