TORONTO – The blueprint was right in front of the Washington Capitals’ faces five minutes into Game 3. They just didn’t dust off the reading glasses and study it properly until Game 4.
The Caps looked like the big, strong, deep powerhouse worthy of two straight Presidents’ Trophies to start Game 3, when they hemmed the Toronto Maple Leafs in with a heavy forecheck and grabbed a 2-0 lead. But the Leafs’ youthful legs and boundless energy eventually reversed the momentum, the Caps looked like the older and slower team caught in a skating contest, and they found themselves losing a second consecutive overtime thriller. Not the case in Game 4, which at many junctures played like an instant replay, but with a different ending: a 5-4 Washington win to even the series 2-2.
“We put pressure on their ‘D’ and the goalie, and we scored big goals in the first,” said captain Alex Ovechkin. “After that, we played a little bit slowly, but give them credit. They don’t give up right until the end.”
Washington grabbed Toronto by the throat right off the opening faceoff for the second game in a row and once again pumped in two goals before the 5:00 minute mark. A Zach Hyman deflection goal had the Leafs creeping back again, but mammoth power forward Tom Wilson, the budding Leaf killer, scored his second and third goals of the series before the opening frame was up, making coach Barry Trotz’s decision to promote him to the third line look brilliant.
It may be an overstatement to say the Leafs poked the proverbial bear, but the Caps woke up in a big way. They found themselves in various moments that could’ve caused them to wilt, to find something or someone to blame, but they fought through them this time. The Leafs cut a 4-1 lead to 4-2. A potential 5-2 Washington lead got disallowed when Nicklas Backstrom was ruled to be interfering with Leaf goalie Frederik Andersen. Toronto opened the third period with a 5-on-3 power play and couldn’t convert. Even after Auston Matthews scored at 12:00 of the third to trim the lead to one, T.J. Oshie answered 59 seconds later on a horribly botched Toronto zone exit. The Leafs’ Tyler Bozak made it 5-4 with 27 seconds left on another goal reviewed for goalie interference that again got ruled in Toronto’s favor. See the pattern here? It was a collection of pivotal, potentially unlucky events, and this time Washington conquered them.
It wasn’t always pretty, but in one night, the Caps went from feeling the weight of the choker label to a series split and a best-of-three, with two games at D.C.’s Verizon Center if necessary. The Oshie goal showed something Washington had sorely lacked so far in the series: the cold-hearted killer’s mentality, the ability to hammer every last nail in the coffin instead of leaving daylight.
Crisis averted? Not necessarily. The Caps were too good to only win one game against the Eastern Conference’s lowest playoff seed. Of course they would push back. But they still bear all the pressure in this series. The Leafs remain the plucky kids with everything to learn and nothing to lose. And, really, they lost one period in Game 4 before playing Washington dead even for the next 40 minutes. Toronto continue to show very little fear of an opponent that had 118 points in the regular season. Oshie feels the Caps aren’t playing well enough with a lead. Backstrom said he wasn’t happy with their breakouts in the third when protecting a lead. The armor remains thoroughly dented.
But it appears Trotz and the Caps at least understand how to win this series now: use their size to dominate down low in the offensive zone and, on the defensive side of the puck, clog the shooting lanes to force the Leafs into taking low-percentage shots from the point and praying for bounces and deflections.
“I think we’ve got our heads on straight right now on how we want to play,” Oshie said. “Unfortunately, it’s taken us a couple games to get there. We want to improve on tonight and get even better. But tonight was the right step.”
The Leafs finally had a lot to lose entering Game 4, and their youth showed, especially on the jittery Connor Brown turnover that led to the game’s winning goal. Coach Mike Babcock said after the game he felt they lost the battles, that they looked like the slow team for a change. But now the expectation of victory falls back onto the Capitals. Time will tell how they respond in Game 5 at home, where they are “supposed” to take a vice grip on this series.
“We just won a game, and what’ll happen is they’re going to prepare, and we’ve got to make sure we don’t take our foot off the pedal,” Trotz said. “They’re going to be preparing to beat us in Washington, and we’ve got to do the same thing. But I think our players are understanding what’s being successful for us.”