The Washington Capitals are not in a horrible place right now – but it could get worse pretty quickly. The Presidents’ Trophy winners head into Game 4 in Toronto down 2-1 in a series that pretty much every neutral observer (and many Leafs partisans) counted as an easy matchup for the Caps.
There seemed to be a definitive strategy for beating the Maple Leafs in short order: dominate physically, as Washington did in a recent regular season victory, and leverage the best defense and goaltending combination in the NHL, not to mention some pretty talented forwards.
“We have to play our game,” said captain Alex Ovechkin. “When we manage the puck well, we control the game and they don’t get chances.”
While the stars have scored and netminder Braden Holtby has been fine in the first three contests, the defense corps was downright awful in Game 3’s staggering overtime loss. Kevin Shattenkirk had a game from hell, while Toronto’s targeting of veteran Brooks Orpik for physical punishment seemed to reap rewards (it certainly provided motivational cues for the Leafs).
If Washington is going to even the series Wednesday night, the forwards may have to lend an extra hand in their own end, particularly so their star goalie can deal with all the redirections and tips that Toronto has used so effectively so far.
“You just gotta battle through for sightlines as best you can,” Holtby said. “They’re putting up a lot of screens – that puts an emphasis on our high forwards to do the job. If they throw enough, they’re going to get one, like they did in the second (period of Game 3).”
One X-factor for the rest of the series will be defenseman Karl Alzner, who missed Game 3 and is not expected to play in Game 4, due to an upper body injury. Formerly the Caps’ iron man, Alzner may truly be the ‘don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’ of a team that saw its blueliners running around its own zone in Game 3, trying to chase down Toronto’s young stars.
And given that the Auston Matthews-William Nylander-Zach Hyman troika has been the best possession line in the entire NHL playoffs so far, you can see what a problem that is.
“We know what kind of team they are,” said defenseman John Carlson. “They’re skilled; they’re gonna get their chances. The more we can limit them and push them to the outside, the better off we’ll be. It’s about reacting in the playoffs and it’s time to react.”
The veteran blueliner was also quick to point out that, while the Maple Leafs were heavy underdogs coming into the series, they’re not a squad to take lightly.
“It’s not like we’re playing a squirt AA team,” he said. “They’re a real solid team. Their ‘D’ get up in the rush and create some havoc and their forwards are very skilled and capable – and they have good goaltending. We’ve gotta do what we’ve gotta do now.”
And they’ve gotta do it fast. While, objectively, on paper, there’s no reason to doubt the Capitals could win the next three games of this series and put the pesky young Leafs behind them, there is the noise factor if they drop Game 4. As in, a mountain of media questions surrounding the franchise’s playoff choker label. Does that sort of talk seep into the psyche of a player? As I’ve long maintained, sports psychology is essentially an exercise in lying to yourself and others, so it’s hard to know for sure. But if the Capitals throw away another playoff series against an inferior opponent, it’s impossible not to chalk some of it up to a mental fear of some sort. Of course, we’re not there yet.
“It’s a situation where you have to fight through it,” Ovechkin said. “We don’t have to panic, we don’t have to do crazy stuff out there; we just have to play our game. We’re old enough to manage it and forget it. Move forward. The series goes to four (wins).”
Right now, Washington is stuck on one. They do not want to be in that position at this time tomorrow.
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