Washington Capitals

NHL playoff series digested: Washington Capitals – Pittsburgh Penguins (3-4)

Under the fratricidal breadth of playoff action, it doesn’t get much better than when the Presidents’ Trophy winners face off against the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Much less when both can throw a constellation of stars into the fray.

For the second consecutive postseason, Pittsburgh and Washington squared off in round two of the Stanley Cup playoffs and through peaks and valleys ended up on familiar locations: the Penguins preparing for the next stage of their trip and the Capitals headed to the greens after the ninth downfall in ten postseason confronts between the two franchises.

Series Results:

Game 1: Pittsburgh Penguins 3 @ 2 Washington Capitals

Game 2: Pittsburgh Penguins 6 @ 2 Washington Capitals

Game 3: Washington Capitals 3 @ 2 Pittsburgh Penguins (OT)

Game 4: Washington Capitals 2 @ 3 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 5: Pittsburgh Penguins 2 @ 4 Washington Capitals

Game 6: Washington Capitals 5 @ 2 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 7: Pittsburgh Penguins 2 @ 0 Washington Capitals

 

Washington can’t turn thorough dominance into scoreline supremacy

A rundown of all major predictors of success in the NHL encapsulates how commanding were the Washington Capitals throughout the 7 game slate, yet hockey can be a pre-eminently chaotic game and you might as well just hang onto that notion to explain how a series like these could go the distance, much less tip Pittsburgh’s way.

In the balance of the tie, Washington outshot Pittsburgh by a 229-161 margin, a 58% share, and the discrepancy was even bigger at five on five (176-121, 59%). Moreover, encompassing all shot attempts, the Capitals controlled even more of the play, racking up a 61.41% CF%, which adjusted for venue and score still comes down to a preposterous 60.30%. This is almost uncharted territory in the most unbalanced of playoff series – for instance, no other team topped a 56% share of possession in round two – and if you inspect other metrics, such as scoring chances (65.74% at 5 on 5) or high-dangerous shot attempts (55.88%), things don’t look much brighter for Pittsburgh.

Washington administered the puck for most of the time but struggled to wreck Pittsburgh’s defensive wall (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

And still, Pittsburgh outscored Washington 20-18 overall and 16-13 at even strength to make the best of their limited opportunities and escape with unlikely victories in Game 1, when the Capitals wasted a 41-15 edge in scoring chances, or Game 4, when a Sidney Crosby-less Penguins squad survived a 13-39 shot attempts deficit in periods two and three.

Regression eventually seemed to be dawning in face of the victories secured by the Capitals in Games 5 and 6, yet they wouldn’t take much solace of that in a winner-takes-all Game 7, furiously responding to the Penguins’ ice breaker in the second period only to be abandoned to their own back luck once again. Washington would find their disheartening end after cracking in the third period, incidentally one of just five (in 22) periods over the series where Pittsburgh claimed a larger slice of the shot pie.

Bryan Rust watches as his shot sails into the net to give the Penguins a 1-0 lead in Game 7 (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Penguins’ resiliency shows up in crucial moments

Up two games to one in their 2016 series against Washington, Pittsburgh clawed its way to a vital home victory in Game 4 without the suspended Kris Letang to push the Capitals to the brink of elimination. Fast forward twelve months and Pittsburgh guts out a 3-2 triumph to tighten the grip on the series in an even more perilous situation, this time missing their ailing superstar captain Sidney Crosby in addition to Letang,

Finding ways to win against all odds are one of the hallmarks of Championship-calibre squads and the Penguins, no matter how ugly it got at times, proved they were masters at it. At least against a Capitals team that devises innovative ways to recoil when facing their biggest rivals…or when staring the prospect of advancing to round three of the playoffs.

In times of adversity, the Pittsburgh Penguins found a way to overcome Washington (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

And so, after 2009 and 2016, history inclemently strutted down the same trail, with Pittsburgh edging Washington as much for their mental toughness and fortitude as for their on-ice prowess. In between fluky bounces of the puck and incredible saves by Fleury, It happened in Game 1, when the Capitals momentum from recovering from two goals down was shattered by a backbreaking Nick Bonino tally with just seven minutes to go in the third.

It almost happened in Game 3, when Pittsburgh snapped out of the trance dictated by Sidney Crosby’s early injury to tie the score with two 6 on 5 goals in the closing minutes before falling in overtime while wielding a 3-0 sledgehammer. It would, obviously, happen in Game 4, as they withstood the Capitals’ barrage to manufacture Justin Schultz’s powerplay goal that would stand as the game winner.

A (flightless) Penguin helps a Capitals’ player hover the ice in Game 6 (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

And despite looking devoid of answers to counteract Washington’s physical pounding and clean up the bundle of turnovers that crippled their breakout in Games 5 and 6, it happened for Pittsburgh in Game 7, assembling a sturdy, unassuming road performance to shut down a desperate Washington team.

Braden Holtby gets outshined…again

During the 2016 encounter between these teams, Washington’s Braden Holtby was outplayed by rookie Matt Murray, but he still came out with the reputation unscathed since his final numbers looked respectable (2.57 GAA, .923 save percentage). Not this time though, as the 2015-16 Vezina Trophy winner shoulders much of the blame for his team’s demise in view of a pedestrian 0.887 Sv% (and matching 0.887 EV Sv%).

While it’s never easy to perform on such a light workload – the Pens wired an average of 23 shots on goal per game -, Holtby is rather accustomed to backstopping an elite team that suppresses opportunities and he still whiffed way too much in the series. For instance, the Canadian goaltender got beat below the blocker in Nick Bonino’s partial breakaway that decided Game 1, was pulled in the second intermission of Game 2 after allowing three goals in just 14 shots, and couldn’t muster an additional save in Game 4 to bail out his team in a crucial match.

The puck shot by Matt Cullen sneaks by Braden Holtby’s body in Game 2 (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Capitals’ netminder improved alongside his teammates later, shining in the third period of Game 5 to preserve the Capitals lead, but it all came crashing down in Game 7. Down 1-0, that weak, fluttering backhand from Patric Hornqvist which handcuffed the 27-year-old simply couldn’t fly past him. Not in the third period of a match where so much was at stake for the franchise. In that moment, an already deflated Capitals team capitulated for good.

Conversely, Marc-Andre Fleury, who filled in for the injured Matt Murray, had a series to remember, as much for his overall output (2.57 GAA, 0.921 Sv%, 0.930 EV Sv%, 1 SO) as for seizing the opportunity to recapture his playoff pedigree. Stepping up to the task brilliantly during the first four games, he then rebounded from getting light up in Games 5 and 6 to shut the door in Game 7. In the process, ghosts of years past were eradicated from his head. Maybe Holtby and the Capitals took notice.

Best players in the series

Evgeni Kuznetsov (Washington Capitals)

The Russian center found some redemption for the disappointing performance of last year’s postseason, when a single assist picked up in six games ascertained his status as one of the patsies of another Capitals’ letdown.

Evgeni Kuznetsov celebrates Washington’s go-ahead goal in the third period of Game 5 (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Kuznetsov’s 7 points tied Nicklas Backstrom for the team lead and his four goals, all obtained at even strength, seemed to pop out in important junctures: the 25-year-old momentarily levelled the score in the third period of Game 1, scored in back to back games in Pittsburgh, and later found a gap short side to substantiate the Caps rally in Game 5.

A dangerous presence who generated regular offense (24 SOG, 61.0 adj. CF%, 65.31 SCF%) regardless of the matchup against Evgeni Malkin or Nick Bonino, the 25-year-old’s contributions could have been even more significant had his linemates, Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson, been able to find the mesh in the many chances the play of Kuznetsov generated.

Marc-André Fleury (Pittsburgh Penguins)

The 32-year-old goaltender was Pittsburgh’s stabilizing force on so many occasions over the 7 games that it is impossible to name them all, but in Pittsburgh’s collective memory one instant will certainly linger. The moment when the shaft of Fleury’s stick deflected an Alex Ovechkin bullet billed for the top corner in the second period of Game 7, preserving the precious one-goal advantage.

Penguins’ goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury denies Evgeni Kuznetsov with a spectacular save in Game 3 (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

Fleury certainly savoured all the big saves on what was his greatest playoff series performance since 2009 – and final one in a Penguins sweater – yet some of his teammates also chipped in decisively.

Rookie Jake Guentzel amassed a series high +5 and 8 pts (4+4), while Evgeni Malkin (3 + 4) drove the Penguins’ group that drew closest to positive territory in the possession front (47.97 adj. CF%) and remarkably compiled a 17-10 advantage in high dangerous shot attempts. Meanwhile, Sidney Crosby, despite being knocked out by Matt Niskanen in the first minutes of Game 3 and appearing…vulnerable after coming back, surfaced in selective instances to post 7 pts and a +4 rating in direct confront with the Capitals’ top defensive pair and most potent forward line.

Will the Washington Capitals return to the playoffs next year? 

Yes, even if their reign at the top of the NHL regular season standings is probably a thing of the past. Such is life in the league when all the chips are pushed to the table in two consecutive seasons, the team falls short and a bevy of important players hit the market at the same time.

Due to salary cap constraints, tough choices needed to be made this summer in Washington and the result was a major facelift to the roster. Against most projections, the Capitals retained top-line winger TJ Oshie, but they had to fork over 46M to close an 8-year deal that they may soon regret, while Evgeni Kuznetsov used KHL leverage to pry his own max-term extension at the premium rate of 7.8M per year. Furthermore his compatriot Dmitry Orlov signed a six-year pact that will pay him 5.1M per season, essentially ending Kevin Shattenkirk’s brief cameo in red and blue and Karl Alzner’s long tenure in Washington.

Justin Williams was one of the players that left Washington this offseason (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The 28-year-old Alzner signed with Montreal, while fellow UFA Justin Williams returned to Carolina, squeezed out by Kuznetsov’s big ticket, which also forced GM Brian MacLellan to trade Marcus Johansson to New Jersey for pennies on the dollar. In between, RFA Andre Burakovsky re-signed and UFA forward Devante Smith Pelley was added to the fold, however defenseman Nate Schmidt, who was line for a promotion to a top-four role, was scooped up by Vegas in the expansion draft to compound an offseason of suffering for Capitals’ fans.

With 4M in cap space and just 17 players on the active roster, Washington still needs one or two top-nine forwards to replenish the attack in addition to couple of depth defenseman, therefore opportunities are inevitably on the way for their youngsters. Jakub Vrana, the 13th overall pick in 2014, and 23-year-old Travis Boyd, who collected 63 pts at the AHL level in 2016-17, are names to watch up front, while Christian Djoos, a 2012 7th round pick who posted 58 pts in the minors, and former second rounder Madison Bowie are eyeing regular blueline duty.

Developing the in-house reinforcements to pick up the slack of the departed lot will take time, but you can never discount a team built around the likes of Alexander Ovechkin (signed until 2022), Nicklas Backstrom (2020), Matt Niskanen (2021) and Braden Holtby (2020). At least in the regular season, that is.

Another season, another playoff collapse for Alex Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals in front of their fans (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

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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 finish 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 what happened against the Pittsburgh Penguins last spring.

However, providentially, this time Barry Trotz stumbled onto 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 trotted 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 money 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.

*For an explanation of the “advanced statistics” terminology cited on this article, read Corsica’s glossary. Unless stated otherwise, all data refers to 5-on-5 play and was retrieved from Corsica.hockey (currently down), Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com.