The Toronto Maple Leafs are back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2013, after a breakout season from a new-look young lineup. Their reward? The President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in the first round.
The Caps come into the postseason after hovering around the top of the NHL all season. They finished with 55 wins and 118 points to secure first place in the league for the second year in a row. The question for them now will be whether they can finally transfer their regular season dominance into the playoffs.
As Alex Ovechkin enters his 30’s and many core players (like T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, and Karl Alzner) play out the last year of their contracts, the Capitals find their window to win a Cup shrinking. Ovechkin has come up short in the playoffs every year, and would certainly like to get his reward while he can still be a dominant player.
The Leafs and Capitals played each other three times this season. Both teams won once in regulation in the other team’s building, and Washington took another 6-5 in overtime after Toronto blew several leads.
Here are three of the biggest storylines to keep an eye on heading into this series.
Washington Capitals vs Toronto Maple Leafs First Round Series Preview
Home Sweet Home
Washington made the Verizon Center a fortress this season, setting a franchise record for home wins by leading the league with 32. They lost just seven games in regulation on home ice all year, allowing just 43 goals in their own building.
The Capitals are an extremely tough nut to crack in the defensive zone regardless, fourth in the NHL in shots against per 60, but they’re particularly impenetrable at home. The blueline core that includes Kevin Shattenkirk, Dmitri Orlov, and Matt Niskanen have done well all year keeping the toughest shots away from Braden Holtby.
Home ice will be a real advantage for the Caps, but the Leafs could make life difficult when the series shifts back to the Air Canada Centre. The city of Toronto is starved for playoff hockey, and in the Leafs’ 2013 series with Boston the atmosphere in their building was nothing like the library it often is during the regular season. The Maple Leafs have been pretty solid at home this year, with a 21-13-7 record at the ACC, and rank as the NHL’s fifth-best possession team in their building.
The Leafs’ ability to steal a few games from this series will rely on their play at home, because the Caps will be an almost unstoppable force in front of their sea of red.
Part of the reason for Washington’s elite defensive numbers this season is the career season they’ve seen from goalie Braden Holtby. Now firmly entrenched as one of the NHL’s top netminders, Holtby posted career highs in both save percentage (.925, third in the league) and goals-against average (2.07, second in the league).
If the Leafs do manage to somehow break down the rock-solid core on Washington’s blueline, they’ll have to solve Holtby. That said, they have done just that this season. Toronto’s seen the Caps’ starter twice this year, putting seven goals past him. In January, the Leafs managed to chase him out of the net after just one period. If there’s any team that’s caused trouble for Holtby this year, it’s Toronto and their potent young offence.
In the other end, Frederik Andersen is far more unproven. He’s been great at times this year, but not particularly consistent. He has more postseason experience than most of his Leafs teammates though, with a .916 save percentage in 28 playoff games with the Anaheim Ducks. Andersen’s health is a bit of a question mark at the moment, as he’s been forced out of two games in the past couple weeks after dangerous collisions. The latest news is that he’ll be ready to go for game one, but whether or not he’ll be 100% remains unknown.
The defence around Andersen isn’t nearly as strong as Washington’s, so it’ll be largely down to him to stop the Caps’ primary offensive threats like Alexander Ovechkin.
The Maple Leafs are one of the NHL’s youngest teams, with most of their core contributors in their rookie or sophomore season. Auston Matthews just finished up an incredible 40-goal rookie season, and is definitely Toronto’s most dangerous offensive threat. Along with him, the Leafs have found many of their goals generated by youngsters like Mitch Marner and William Nylander, with rookie Nikita Zaitsev one of the their main stalwarts on defence.
The fact that rookies run the show in Toronto bodes very well for the future, but may not be a boon in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The NHL’s postseason tournament is a physical, grinding war of attrition that many players grow accustomed to after years of experience. The Capitals have been in this situation before; they’ll be far more accustomed to the playoffs. The Leafs have relied a lot on their special teams this season, with a very potent powerplay, so they could be in for a rude awakening here.
Teams can get away with far more in the playoffs, as referees have a tendency to put the whistles away when things get intense. The Leafs won’t know how to toe the line as well as the Caps, so they could run into trouble there.
Toronto brought in Brian Boyle at the trade deadline to try and mitigate some of these factors, immediately adding 100 games of playoff experience to their lineup. The effect he has on the team’s youngsters could be paramount to how they come out of the gate in the first couple games of this series.
The Leafs may be an exciting team to watch, and they deserve a lot of credit for making the playoffs a year after finishing 30th overall. Unfortunately, though, the Washington Capitals are one heck of a Goliath to Toronto’s David.
If Andersen plays well, the Leafs have a chance of stealing a game or two at home, which they’d probably be happy with. Regardless, the Caps are probably going to win this series.
Capitals in five.
Here are the other predictions from members of the Last Word on Hockey team. As you can see, it’s pretty unanimous:
Ben Kerr: Capitals in five
Markus Meyer: Capitals in five
Patrick Dejbjerg: Capitals in five
Sean Merz: Capitals in six
David Elisio: Capitals in five
Kyle Cushman: Capitals in six
Griffin Schroeder: Capitals in five
Hunter Hodies: Capitals in five
Rachel Halliwell: Capitals in seven
Nic Hendrickson: Capitals in four
Jake Howorth: Capitals in six
Nicholas Di Giovanni: Capitals in four
Kenneth Stapon: Capitals in five
Brandon Piller: Capitals in five