Toronto Maple Leafs

NHL playoff series digested: Washington Capitals – Toronto Maple Leafs (4-2)

On paper, the clash between the two-time defending Presidents’ trophy winners and the upstart Toronto Maple Leafs was considered the most lopsided in the first batch of matchups, however reality painted a much different outlook: through six games of electrifying, fast-paced hockey, startling changes of momentum and copious amounts of overtime drama, Washington and Toronto actually cobbled together the most compelling series of the opening round.

In the end, though, the Leafs succumbed on the verge of forcing a do-or-die Game 7, and Washington moved on to the much-anticipated rematch with Pittsburgh.

Series Results:

Game 1: Toronto Maple Leafs 2 @ 3 Washington Capitals (OT)

Game 2: Toronto Maple Leafs 4 @ 3 Washington Capitals (2 OT)

Game 3: Washington Capitals 3 @ 4 Toronto Maple Leafs (OT)

Game 4: Washington Capitals 5 @ 4 Toronto Maple Leafs

Game 5: Toronto Maple Leafs 1 @ 2 Washington Capitals (OT)

Game 6: Washington Capitals 2 @ 1 Toronto Maple Leafs (OT)

 

Determined Capitals dictated the tempo when the finished line twinkled on the horizon

The greatest discrepancy between the two sides related to playoff experience, but in the flow of the action that factor was mostly muted by the pulsating youthful exuberance emanating from the Leafs setup, as the teams amounted for the same number of even strength goals (13-13) over the series and Toronto actually edged Washington in total shots on goal (213-211).

However, not all moments are created equal and the Capitals’ resolve and familiarity in high-pressure situations eventually came to the fore late in the series, not incidentally at the same time the Leafs slowly eschewed their underdog mentality and thoughts of completing the upset creeped in.

That much was evident in Game 5 overtime, when the Leafs were a shot away from getting back home one win away from round two and they conceded the winner less than 1 minute into the extra period. Two nights later, after a lucky bounce and Auston Matthews’ sublime execution gave them the lead in the third period, Toronto allowed the Capitals to take over the game right away, tying just five minutes later and monopolizing the play in overtime (6-0 SCF, 5-1 SOG, 9-1 CF) until Marcus Johansson struck the final dagger.

Marcus Johansson pots home the rebound goal in OT to lift the Capitals past the Maple Leafs in Game 6 (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

With five games decided in extra time and a narrow 3-2 record in favour of the Capitals, we can’t definitely ascertain Washington’s supremacy in key situations, as the Leafs rallied back more than once and took Game 2 in the second overtime of a back and forth contest (15-15 SOG in OT), but it’s fair to stress the Capitals eventually found a gear the Leafs simply didn’t possess.

Washington’s star players answered the call

After a badly timed penalty allowed the Leafs to bag Game 3 in overtime and jump to a 2-1 advantage in the series, the whispers regarding yet another impending Capitals collapse took on a life of their own. In times like these, it’s up to a team’s core group to find a way to right the ship and Washington’s top dogs came through, revelling on the challenge.

In Game 4, first-line wingers TJ Oshie and Alex Ovechkin (PP) gave the Capitals a commanding two-goal lead just five minutes in to settle the rowdy Air Canada Center, and in the third period Oshie added an insurance marker less than one minute after Auston Matthews cut the lead to 4-3, securing a crucial away victory to level the series.

Then, in Game 5, the top powerplay unit manufactured the 1-0 tally before the second line (M Johansson/E. Kuznetsov/J. Williams) vanquished the opposition in their inaugural overtime shift, setting the stage for some more Game 6 heroics, when the trio tied the game with 7 minutes to go in regulation and later buried the Leafs in overtime.

Justin Williams (#14) and Marcus Johansson celebrate after scoring the deciding goal in Game 5 (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Overall, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, TJ Oshie, Marcus Johansson, Evgeni Kuznetsov and Justin Williams accounted for 14 of the Capitals’ 18 goals and 30 pts in 6 games. No surprise at all those numbers were sufficient to get the team over the hump when goaltender Braden Holtby decided to get in on the act, allowing just two goals on 63 shots faced in Games 5 and 6 after being light up 14 times in the first four matches.

Blueline depth helped turn around the series

Despite boasting a better mix this season, namely with the addiction of Kevin Shattenkirk, Washington’s defence struggled to contain the speed of the young Maple Leafs throughout the opening matches, not unlike had happened against the Pittsburgh Penguins last spring.

However, providentially, this time Barry Trotz stumbled into the solution when Karl Alzner went down with an injury after Game 2 and he had to turn his sights towards 25-year-old Nate Schmidt. Fleet of foot and incomparably more apt moving the puck, Schmidt drew in alongside John Carlson for Game 3 and the pair would blend into one of the major driving forces behind the Capitals’ improvement, tilting the ice with bravado (close to 60% CF and SCF%) and featuring in six goals for and just one against over the next four games.

Washington’s defenseman Nate Schmidt takes the stick of Toronto’s LEo Komarov in front of Braden Holtby’s net (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Their success balanced Washington’s defensive unit and it wasn’t long before they started being trot out behind the top forward line (TJ Oshie/N. Backstrom/A. Ovechkin), preserving the duo M. Niskanen/D. Orlov for the unenviable task of shadowing Auston Matthews as soon as the American prodigy caught fire from Game 3 onwards.

Meanwhile, on the other side, the injury bug also made its victims and Mike Babcock wasn’t as fortunate papering over the cracks. Without top four blueliner Nikita Zaitsev for the first two games and with Roman Polak knocked off the series in Game 2, he was cornered into playing Matt Hunwick (-4) alongside Morgan Rielly and frequent healthy scratch Martin Marincin on the third pair, exposing his team way more than intended. Evidently, it didn’t end well.

Best players in the series

TJ Oshie (Washington Capitals)

The 30-year-old winger was a ubiquitous presence in the thick of the action, clocking 16 hits and 11 blks, and he has the offensive numbers to back up his importance in the outcome of the series.

His 7 points and 21:25 min of TOI/GP led all forwards, and the three goals he scored proved vital to flip the script following Game 3, as Oshie broke the ice in the next two matches and neatly took advantage of a defensive miscue to wire the eventual game-winner in Game 4.

Auston Matthews (Toronto Maple Leafs)

After a 40-goal rookie campaign, the Maple Leafs saviour took a pair of playoff games to get into the groove before the goals started spilling out again.

Toronto’s Auston Matthews (#34) prepares to pass the puck after pulling away from a couple of Capitals’ players (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Matthews scored in four consecutive games and added one assist to collect a total of five even strength points – tied for the series lead with Nicklas Backstrom – in 20:18 min TOI/ GP, most amongst Leafs forwards.

Moreover, in spite of going head-to-head with the dynamic Evgeni Kuznetsov line, the 19-year-old finished with a +2 rating and positive possession (53.45 CF%) and scoring chances (51.82 SCF%) stats, which is also a testament to the work of his teammates Zach Hyman (4 pts, 21 hits) and William Nylander (4 pts, +4, team-best 58.94 CF%).

Will the Toronto Maple Leafs return to the playoffs next year? 

Definitely…or the centre of the hockey world may lose its collective mind. In Year Two of the Auston Matthews Era, just reaching the playoffs would be small potatoes, so anything less than a first playoff series win since 2004 won’t sooth the mob.

In order to achieve it, and perhaps stake a claim for the top divisional seed, GM Lou Lamoriello can count on a ton of cap space and impressive flexibility moving forward, as the Leafs have some 11-12M to work with for 2017-18 plus 10.55M in cap relief from the incapacitated Nathan Horton and Joffrey Lupul. That’s more than enough to pluck in a decent backup for Frederik Andersen, bring back RFAs Connor Brown and Zach Hyman, retain or substitute UFA defensemen Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick, and have a fair shot at keeping hulking 4th line centre Brian Boyle.

Maple Leafs’ Center Tyler Bozak is mobbed by teammates after notching the OT winner in Game 3 (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

Furthermore, the remaining could be stashed for later, when they’ll have a clearer picture on the second contracts of William Nylander (RFA 2018), Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner (both RFA 2019), or used to accommodate an impact addiction on the backend that could solidify the roster. James Van Riemsdyk (UFA 2018) and defenseman Jake Gardiner (UFA 2019) are attractive pieces to dangle or keep as part of the core moving forward, while Tyler Bozak’s (UFA 2018) stint in Toronto is presumably approaching the end.

Anyway, regardless of all decision to come, the Leafs are set up nicely, with just three players locked long term – Nazem Kadri (2022), Morgan Rielly (2022) and Zaitsev’s new deal at 4.5M until 2024 – supplemented by the 1.2M due to Phil Kessel for five more seasons. No doubt whatsoever: The good times are coming back to the margins of Lake Ontario.