The Maple Leafs win if ...
Should the Maple Leafs plant a seed of doubt in the Capitals, they could have an outside shot. The Caps nearly crumbled against a far inferior Philadelphia squad last season and Washington has been synonymous with falling short in the post-season ever since the Ovechkin epoch began. The Capitals are supposed to win the Stanley Cup, but they have to actually do it. If Toronto can jump out to an early lead in the series, perhaps they can get into the Capitals’ heads and pull off the stunning upset.
For that to happen, the Maple Leafs must continue to play loose – the kind of offensive firewagon hockey driven by Auston Matthews and his 40-goal rookie outburst. This team is absolutely lethal on the power play and the penalty-kill was top-10 in the league, so if it comes down to a special teams battle, Toronto can hang with the similarly-skilled Capitals.
Where the Leafs have faltered is on the defensive side of the puck. They give up a lot of chances and when they are not scoring themselves, that leads to trouble. If Toronto can lock down the Washington attack, goaltender Frederik Andersen will give them a chance to win every night. Andersen ended the regular season by taking a shot to the head from Pittsburgh goon Tom Sestito, but there were no concussion symptoms. That’s huge for the Leafs.
The Capitals win if ...
As the Presidents’ Trophy winners and a franchise that has been starving for a title since the Alex Ovechkin era began a decade ago, the Capitals simply need to play by their regular season standard if they are to dust off the Baby Leafs in the first round.
The initial key will be to snuff out any hopes the inexperienced Maple Leafs may have at the beginning of the series. Washington crushed Toronto in the last head-to-head matchup, using physicality to punish the quick and skilled Leafs. That’s the best way to deal with young stars such as Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Auston Matthews and the strategy bore out when Tampa Bay did something similar one game later against Toronto.
But really, Washington should win on talent alone. Starting at the top, the Capitals have one of the most dangerous offensive attacks in the NHL, spearheaded by Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and buttressed by Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and Marcus Johansson. Should the series go long, the Caps also have Justin ‘Mr. Game 7’ Williams.
The defense in Washington is smart and mobile. Associate coach Todd Reirden brought wisdom – and veterans Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik – from Pittsburgh and the unit has blossomed since then. This season, Washington ranked tops in the league in goal suppression. Nabbing Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline was a big morale booster and the erstwhile Blues rearguard really got the offense going by the end of the campaign.
In net, the Capitals start the reigning Vezina Trophy winner in Braden Holtby. He was no less impressive this season, tying for the NHL lead in victories with 42. Assuming he continues to play at his current level, the Capitals should have no problem dispatching Toronto in short order. Heck, even if Holtby has a so-so series, Washington will likely win the battle in the other two categories and walk into the second round.
Maple Leafs: James van Riemsdyk played like a man possessed in the final few games of the regular season, helping Toronto clinch its playoff spot in the process. ‘JVR’ is one of the few Maple Leafs who has played in a Cup final (2010 with Philadelphia) and that experience will be important. His combination of size and quick hands also makes him a load to handle when he’s hot. If he can grab attention, that opens up space for the Auston Matthews line.
Capitals: Evgeny Kuznetsov was M.I.A. in last year’s playoffs, tallying just one goal and two points in 12 games. His regular season totals weren’t as impressive this year, so perhaps he’s learning to pace himself. In the last 10 games of the season, he only had five points, but the Capitals weren’t really playing for anything, so that might be a bit of an excuse. If the smart and talented center can catch fire, this series will be over very quickly.
Raise your hand if before the season started you thought Auston Matthews would out-score Alex Ovechkin. Put your hand down, liar. It was a stunning season for the rookie who had at least one shot in every single game he played this season, something not even Ovie, the shot taking king, could do. They were equally incredible this year – a testament to Matthews’s season to even be in the same breath as Ovechkin. Both guys struggled on the defensive side of the game, though it was a bigger issue for Ovechkin, but it doesn’t matter too much when they’re so good on offense. These guys are two of the most prolific shooters in the league so look for them to trade chances here and probably a few goals, too. The two rarely shared the ice together so there’s not much to gleam match-up wise, but they’ll be the key cogs for both teams goal-scoring wise. (Dom Luszczyszyn)
CAPITALS in five games.