A roundup of radio takes on the Maple Leafs vs. Capitals first-round series.
Mike Halford: “I really like the Leafs in this series”
NBC’s Mike Halford on the Leafs‘ outlook in the series:
I really like the Leafs in this series, to be honest. The Leafs are playing with house money at this point. I can understand them being a little overwhelmed by the big stage, but I also think, in terms of the pressure narrative, you can’t get more polar opposites than these two teams. The Leafs have absolutely zero pressure because they’re way ahead of schedule. This was sort of icing on the cake, the cherry on top. It’s kind of unexpected that they’re here.
Then you’ve got Washington, fully cognizant that GM Brian MacLellan said they have a two-year window and this is year two to win the Stanley Cup. The Shattenkirk trade adds a tonne of pressure to it. I think everything that happens in the Eastern Conference always circles back to the Capitals. I remember when Kris Letang got hurt and one of the questions we wrote about was, “Does this make Washington an even bigger favourite?” I think this could really play to the Leafs’ advantage.
The other thing too is that Toronto played pretty well – that last game notwithstanding when they were gassed — in the two regular season matchups. I thought they acquitted themselves pretty well against Washington. The 4-2 win earlier in the year, and then that crazy 6-5 OT loss. You look at them and they match up relatively well. They can score with them. The big question is going to be the defense and the goaltending. That’s obviously to be determined against a powerhouse squad like Washington, but I do like how it matches up, honestly. I think it’s pretty decent for the Leafs.
Alan May: “The Capitals have never been put together this well”
Capitals studio analyst Alan May on the strength of the Capitals entering the playoffs:
With some of the past teams that they’ve had, they’ve had some glaring holes in their team in the makeup. Sometimes it was coaching. Sometimes it was defence. Sometimes it was depth up front. I don’t know if you call it choking; even last year, I had picked Pittsburgh to win the Cup. I just thought the Caps had some holes on their team. The third and fourth line center spots weren’t filled the way they needed to be. There were still huge holes on defence. They didn’t have the depth there. This year, if this team is not able to at least get to the Finals, I would say there was a choke along the line somewhere. They’ve never been put together this well.
I don’t think the Caps will ever [again] have a team that is built like this. They check all the boxes. The biggest thing now is to have playoff success. It’s a matter of the coaching staff. I think it’s on them more than ever to make the right decisions, hard decisions, to come up with great strategy for every team you come up against in the playoffs. That’s how you win the Cup…. I think everything is finally in place for this team to have a run at the Cup.
The Capitals have had the attitude this year that they know they have to play against good teams and great coaches no matter what. They kept saying and telling themselves, “If we have to play Pittsburgh in the first round, we’ll play Pittsburgh. You’ve got to beat good teams.” I think the team is confident they’re going to find a way to win whatever series they can whoever they play. The fan base, because it’s the most negative city in the world and there are a lot of people who are casual hockey fans that have labelled the Caps as a team that will choke and never get it done no matter how good they are…. I think people want to believe this team is legit and they’re apprehensive, they’re worried, they’re scared. They want good things to happen.
On keys to the series for the Leafs:
The biggest thing that the Maple Leafs have going for them – and they have all of these incredible young hockey players, these incredible young forwards – the number open weapon they have is Mike Babcock. I don’t think the Leafs are in the playoffs if Mike Babcock isn’t the coach. If any other coach in the NHL is coach of the Leafs, they’re not in.
I look at Matthews; the way he scored his goals all season – he’s got the best hand-eye coordination in the league, the most deceptive wrist shot there probably is in the league, the quickest wrist shot there – but he scored all of his goals by attacking the net. His shot density, his goal density was from below the hashmarks. He scores so many rebound goals; everything was in tight. He’s wicked in there. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody better. And that’s Mike Babcock’s system. That’s the same thing that the Detroit Red Wings did for years; they way they funnelled pucks to the front of the net from every angle, with so much net presence. For the Leafs to have success, when they have the puck they’ve got to find a way to challenge to get to the front of the net and continue to get pucks there. Their power play was great not because it was fancy and they were moving the puck around like wizards like they used to in Detroit under Scotty Bowman… this is a team that wins a faceoff, shoots the puck, and there are three or four players down at the net every time. For the Leafs to have a hope in this series, they’ve got to crash the net and stay in the Capitals zone.
Their weakness is definitely when they don’t have the puck. Not enough experience. The coaching staff hasn’t had time to really teach all of the finer points of the defensive nuances of the game. The biggest thing they can do is just hope to have the puck, get it in the Caps zone as much as they can, and get it below the hashmarks to battle away. That, to me, is the number-one strength of the Leafs. The Caps have to find a way to lock them down and keep them out of the middle of the ice and out from in front of Braden Holtby.
Ray Ferraro: “They’re just not good enough to beat Washington”
On the Leafs odds against the President’s Trophy winners:
The only problem is they’re just not good enough to beat Washington. That’s my opinion. They can use being the underdog to their advantage and you’re not really scared of something no one expects you to win, but I think when you get right into the nuts and bolts, there’s not one place where you can say, ‘I can see an advantage for Toronto here.’ A place Toronto has got a clear advantage on most teams is the combination of their speciality teams. Toronto was second on the power play and ninth in penalty killing. Washington was third on the power play and eighth at penalty killing. They’re the same.
At 5 on 5, I don’t think anyone is going to say Toronto can outplay Washington. Now, they might. I would say that nobody is going to say their goaltending is going to outplay Washington, but they might. It would be the most colossal upset that you could have in these playoff series to say whoever was going to play Washington in the first round would beat them.
On the Leafs’ strategy entering the series:
Not turn it over, no hope plays, don’t make risky plays. Even if you turn it over mid-slot – say you’re the corner and you say, “there’s a guy open through two of their guys” and it gets picked off – it’s the wrong way. You have to make Washington, as much as possible, start from scratch, start from a dead stop, and try to work their way up the ice.
I would say one key would be, as well: If you can cycle the puck and hold it, that allows your D to keep as tight a gap as possible and get right up not into Ovechkin or Oshie but in Backstrom and Kuznetsov’s faces as much as you can. Keep the puck out of their hands. Let Ovie carry it up the ice. I’m fine with that. I don’t want Backstrom carrying it up the ice. Backstrom and Kuznetsov can be the two most dangerous guys in this series.
Jamie McLennan: “[The Leafs] are going to win some games on sheer skill”
On the Leafs” outlook in the series:
I don’t think anybody in their right mind should think this is going to be a Washington sweep or that the Leafs are just going to roll over. The Leafs have too much talent. They’re going to win some games on sheer skill alone and get to the goaltender. It’s just whether they’re going to be able to defend well enough. Are they going to be disciplined with the puck where they need to be? Those are the things that worry me for the Leafs in the whole-series picture.
Pierre McGuire: “There are ways to beat them”
On how the series stacks up:
I do a tonne of Washington games. Right now, Toronto is not the favourite, I hate to tell you. But there are ways to beat them. It requires a lot of discipline. It will require elite goaltending. It will require tonnes of guys at all levels of the lineup to overachieve.
I don’t see the Capitals [underachieving] being part of their equation this year. I think the biggest reason why is thrust through the middle. With Nick Backstrom, with Evgeny Kuznetsov, with Lars Eller, and with Jay Beagle, they create major matchup problems. That’s why I don’t number their lines. A lot of people would say Beagle, Winnik and Wilson is their fourth line. There are some nights where that line is their third line. There are some nights where that line is their second line. They are an amazingly effective weapon. I personally believe that’s the best depth line in the National Hockey League. I think you found that out in the 4-1 win over Toronto. Wilson and Winnik are amazingly useful, and Beagle is one of the best faceoff guys in the league.
That’s the problem with Washington. That’s what I think stops them from being underachievers – that depth energy they get forces the big guys to play hard every single night.
If Nikita Zaistev is out, Morgan Rielly is going to become more and more of a target. That’s going to be tough on Morgan. He’s never gone through that before at this level. That’s where you’re going to see Ovechkin early on. You’re going to see Winnik early on. You’re going to see Oshie early. When those guys get nasty, they can play very nasty. That’s where it becomes a bit of a problem for the younger Leafs.
There is a lot that Mike Babcock will be able to do. One thing that’s going to be interesting that probably won’t get a lot of attention: I know how much Barry Trotz enjoyed being on Mike Babcock’s staff at the World Cup. That gives Barry a different look at how Mike does things compared to when Mike was in Detroit and Barry was in Nashville and they’d coach against each other in playoff series. It’s just a little bit of a different thing that Barry wouldn’t have known before that now he does.
Gary Roberts: “There is a lot of pressure on Washington”
On the Leafs’ odds:
I know everyone might give it a long shot, but Washington hasn’t exactly been lighting the world on fire in the playoffs. I’m sure they’re on the other end going, “gosh, if we lose to these guys, we’re going to be ridden out of town.” I think there is a lot of pressure on Washington to come out and kind of do what they’re expected to do. The Leafs are a young, young group that is going to learn so much from this experience. For them to go out there and just play their game and play loose – with the skill they have – they’re going to get their chances to score. Hopefully, guys that have done it all year for them can continue to produce in the playoffs.
On whether he is surprised that the Leafs are in this position:
I don’t make a big thing of age. I usually make more of a big thing of whether you have the talent or not. Age is kind of irrelevant more in today’s game than ever before, with how good the young players are and how early they start getting focused on the job they did. It reminds me a little bit of 1985. We weren’t as good as this team in the regular season and we upset Chicago in three straight, and they were an 115-point team or something. They got confidence as the year went on and the best players continued to be the best players for 80 games. The key is outstanding goaltending and they’ve had that.
On the keys to the series for the Leafs:
I think we have to play a very sound game at both ends of the rink. The two big things are getting good production from our guys — so you get a couple of goals early maybe — or the big thing that stumps everybody in the first round is your goalie stands on his head and they can’t find a way to score. With that, your team grows more and more confidence and all of a sudden some offence comes out of it. It almost happened to us in that St. Louis series where Curtis Joseph stood on his head. It wasn’t until Game 7 that we finally broke it open. You start getting that and it starts putting doubts in the minds of a team like Washington, who have had good seasons a lot of the time but haven’t quite got to where they were supposed to get to. It’s very easy if we can play them hard and give them some doubts. The last game that was played in Toronto where Washington was really good, we were also really bad. I kind of throw that one out the window because it wasn’t a true showing of our team. I think we’ll show very well against Washington.