Maple Leafs Hot Stove has been fraternizing with the enemy over at Russian Machine Never Breaks in order to familarize ourselves with one another’s playoff rosters.
We’ll have their breakdown of the Caps roster later in the day. For now, here’s MLHS’ contribution.
Auston Matthews – He sucks. Don’t pay attention to him, Caps. He practically marks himself.
Affectionately called “Matts” by his teammates, he’s the first Leaf since Sundin to hit 40 goals and he did it as a rookie, joining only Mario Lemieux and Eric Lindros among rookies 19 and under to achieve the feat in the last 30 years. A generational talent and franchise cornerstone, Matthews is a hockey-playing unicorn; a 6’2?, 215-pound center who can skate like the wind, handle the puck like a snake takes turns, and shoot as well as the game’s all-time greatest goal scorers. He can blow it past goalies from the high slot but makes a killing with his quick release below the hashmarks. He’s a superstar who is capable of changing the course of a series.
William Nylander – Willy has the ability to be an X-factor in this series. He should’ve received more Calder buzz than he did in the second half of the season, although Matthews separated himself from the rest of the pack in the final 15 games. He’s a top-40 player in point scoring since he broke the league full-time last February. The Capitals would be unwise to sleep on Willy Ny The Swedish Guy; he’s a game breaker with a shot just about as lethal as Matthews — which is incredibly high praise — and he can take over shifts easily with his speed and skill. He’s an elite power play weapon already and a huge part of the Leafs’ success with the man advantage, leading the entire league in PP pts/60. An electrifying talent.
Mitch Marner – The speedy and creative winger dominated the OHL last season — winning regular season MVP, playoffs MVP, and Memorial Cup MVP — but concerns about his size had some wondering if he was a “tweener” player who was best suited but ineligible for the AHL. He changed everyone’s mind after just one preseason game and hit the ground running to start the regular season with a six-shot game against Ottawa in which he could’ve had a hat trick. He hasn’t really looked back, piling up 61 points in 77 games as a rookie. He’s played on the wing with two established NHL producers in Bozak and JVR all season in a sheltered scoring role, but he’s been labeled the “driver” of that line by his head coach on many occasions this season and he works hard without the puck. He’s always good for a couple of plays a game that drop your jaw — often a no-look pass right on someone’s tape through a couple of pairs of legs — and he had three separate three-assist games this season. There is some concern that he hit a bit of a rookie wall down the stretch, although he played through strep throat in March. He should scare Capitals fans in those secondary matchups. When Marner is firing at the same time as Matthews and Nylander, the Leafs turn into a lethal three-line team that can break games wide open.
Toronto Maple Leafs Systems: What to look for vs. Washington (MLHS)
Some of the Leafs blown leads include the opposition exploiting Toronto’s soft spots in coverage and slipping in undetected or unchecked. There is very little to tweak systematically here; it’s simply a matter of awareness in the defensive zone. The Capitals will stretch this capability to the fullest. Washington’s forecheck is carried out mostly below the goal line. To beat through that initial attack, the support layers will be conduits to moving the puck out either with quick short passes or by skating it out through controlled exits and moving together as a unit, something the Leafs have been doing since Mike Babcock became head coach.
Practice Notes: Nikita Zaitsev ruled out for Game 1 versus Washington (MLHS)
While it’s hard to be optimistic about the Leafs’ defence ability to cope with strength and depth of Capitals attack (that was also the case before Zaitsev’s injury), spending more time with the puck in the offensive zone is going to be key, as will the Leafs’ structure through neutral ice without the puck. The Leafs forwards sometimes refer to it as “getting skin” on the opponent in reference to bumps, picks and heavy sticks through neutral ice that are hallmarks of Mike Babcock hockey. At 5v5, slowing the Capitals down through the neutral zone is going to be crucial in order to buy the Leafs’ defence time to retrieve pucks and make plays.
Championship season with Lethbridge still a golden memory for Babcock (SI.com)
You know where Babcock went after he left, of course. But know too that Lethbridge has never left him, either. A few months ago, when a reporter called to reminisce about the Pronghorns, Babcock was in his Leafs office at Air Canada Centre. On his desk was a baseball cap, which Babcock had found while cleaning up the house after his father, the elder Mike Babcock, died in March 2015. He wore it into work that morning, as he often does.
Why Hunwick might be the key to everything for the Maple Leafs (The Athletic)
But as a veteran stepping up into a bigger role, in a playoff series, Hunwick should be able to handle this. In 2010, he averaged 22 minutes a game on the Bruins blueline, playing in their top four for two series. That was a good team – they won the Cup the next year – and he was a key part of it. Seven years ago but still.
Babcock’s challenge of adjusting without Zaitsev (TSN.ca)
Marincin hasn’t played since Mar. 14 when Toronto was blown out 7-2 by the Florida Panthers. Babcock wouldn’t confirm if Zaitsev has a concussion and added the team is “always hopeful” he would be back for Saturday’s Game 2. In the meantime, Marincin will get a coveted opportunity to prove he can help bolster Toronto’s thin defence corps.
Cup-hungry Capitals face Leafs at start of contending window (AP)
Matthews, an Arizona native who was the top pick in the draft, is the first rookie to score at least 40 goals since Ovechkin in 2005-06. He bears watching every shift. “When you look at his game versus a lot of other guys that are goal-scorers, especially at young ages, a lot of guys cheat offensively,” Orpik said. “But I don’t think there’s any cheat in his game. You watch how good he is, all 200 feet of the ice, at that age, that’s probably what jumps out the most — his all-around game.”
Zaitsev out, Caps’ Carlson too? (Toronto Sun)
“I’m part of the decision, but I’m not any decision maker,” Carlson told reporters. “I’m just doing everything I possibly can to get better, get stronger. But, yeah, I feel good. I’ve been away from the team a little bit so I think the biggest thing is feeling everything out and getting back into the swing of things as far as the passing, the breakouts, all that stuff. Not that it’s a huge deal, but certainly something I was concentrating on (this week).”
No Zaitzev means new defensive pairings (TSN.ca)
Zaitsev’s absence forced Babcock to change all three of his defence pairings on Wednesday. “We’re all pretty comfortable playing with one another,” said Morgan Rielly who was partnered with Matt Hunwick. “I think that’s one of our strengths. Whether it’s playing with different guys on the penalty kill or in practice here I think we’re all pretty familiar with one another. I don’t think there’s going to be any adjustment period.” The biggest switch involved Hunwick, a lefty, moving to the right side. “It’s not as good,” Babcock admitted. “They can tell you it is, it’s just flat-out not as good. It is what it is.”
Odds are Leafs won’t beat the Capitals (Toronto Star)
The Maple Leafs are 25-to-1 win the Stanley Cup, according to Bodog. Those are the same opening odds as Boston, Calgary and Nashville and better odds than Ottawa (28-to-1) and St. Louis (33-1). The favourites? Chicago at 4-to-1, Washington at 9-to-2; followed by Minnesota and Pittsburgh, each at 8-to-1. The Leafs opened at 15-to-4 to beat the Capitals.
Mike Babcock: “We’re going to be a real hard out” (MLHS)
“Marty is a real good player. Marty’s confidence gets in his way sometimes. To be honest with you, I thought he was going to be a regular for us every single day all year. He let it slip away and someone else got it, and that’s just the way it goes. There is nothing against turning it all around right here, right now and being important.”