It’s been four years since Toronto fans were able to say this: Tonight, the Leafs begin their playoff bid in pursuit of the Stanley Cup.
We all know the threat the Capitals present. The Leafs should expect nothing less than a team that is at or near the top of the league in all areas of the game. Name anything: goaltending, shot/chance creation, shot/chance suppression, meaningful physicality, cycle game – the Capitals excel at it all, and they’re expected to go the distance this Spring.
When the Leafs step on the Verizon Center ice tonight, they’ll be facing the team that no one else wanted to face, and they will be without a key piece of their blue line. We all know this about the playoffs though: This time of year presents an opportunity for any team to buck expectations and go on a run. Everyone loves an underdog.
Each of Toronto’s three meetings with Washington was its own story:
Game #1 – November 26th – 4-2 Maple Leafs
Martin, Van Riemsdyk and Matthews goals gave the Leafs a 3-0 lead until the Capitals got two back in the third but still came out with a win. The Leafs were able to create enough high-danger chances and take advantage of five powerplays in order to come out with a win in what was an excellent showing after a three-game losing streak.
Game#2 – January 3rd – 6-5 Capitals (OT)
The Capitals pulled Braden Holtby in the first period after three Leaf goals by Kadri, Brown, and Gauthier. The Leafs were up 4-2 after 2 periods but gave up one of their leads in trademark fashion. Alex Ovechkin scored the overtime winner.
Game#3 – April 4th – 4-1 Capitals
The latest matchup, only a few short days ago, doesn’t need much rehashing. The Leafs were on the second half of a back to back and ran into a strong team that was waiting in Toronto for them and brought its A game. The Capitals gave the Leafs little room and beat the Leafs to puck all over the ice while limiting their speed through the neutral zone.
Statistics courtesy of SportingCharts.com
|Home Winning %||0.598||0.8|
|Away Winning %||0.55||0.625|
|Shootout Winning %||0.111||0.286|
|Goal Differential Per Game||0.2||1.02|
|Shot Differential Per Game||-0.68||2.6|
|Hits Per Game||23.6||21.1|
|PIM Per Game||9.7||9.1|
|Opponent PIM Per Game||10||8.7|
|Goals Per Game||3.05||3.18|
|Even Strength Goals Per Game||2.27||2.43|
|Power Play Goals Per Game||0.71||0.7|
|Shots Per Game||31.9||30.4|
|Shots Per Goal||10.5||9.6|
|Team Shooting %||0.096||0.105|
|Power Play %||0.238||0.231|
|Goals Against Per Game||2.85||2.16|
|ES Goals Against Per Game||2.23||1.59|
|PP Goals Against Per Game||0.54||0.54|
|Shots Against Per Game||32.6||27.83|
|Shots Against Per Goal||11.42||12.89|
|Opp. Team Shooting %||0.088||0.078|
|Penalty Kill %||0.825||0.838|
|Goals Against Average||2.81||2.14|
|Opponent Save %||0.905||0.895|
|Opponent Goals Against Average||3||3.15|
Washington Capitals Projected Lineups
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – T.J. Oshie
Marcus Johansson – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Justin Williams
Brett Connolly – Lars Eller – Andre Burakovsky
Daniel Winnik – Jay Beagle – Tom Wilson
Karl Alzner – John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov – Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik – Kevin Shattenkirk
Starter: Braden Holtby (42-13-6, 2.07, 0.925)
Backup: Philipp Grubauer
Scratched: Taylor Chorney, Paul Carey, Nate Schmidt
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
Leo Komarov – Nazem Kadri – Connor Brown
James Van Riemsdyk – Tyler Bozak – Mitch Marner
Zach Hyman – Auston Matthews -William Nylander
Matt Martin – Brian Boyle – Kasperi Kapanen
Morgan Rielly – Matt Hunwick
Jake Gardiner – Roman Polak
Martin Marincin – Connor Carrick
Starter: Fredrik Andersen (33-16-14, 2.67, 0.918)
Backup: Curtis McElhinney
Injured: Nikita Zaitsev, Eric Fehr, Nikita Soshnikov, Josh Leivo
Game Day: Mike Babcock
Does today feel any different for you?
Babcock: [Different] than the regular season? For sure. Obviously, I’m excited. We had a year where we didn’t get to be in them last year and we earned the right to be in them. It should be a lot of fun. We’re playing a real good team in a good city, a good market. It should be good energy. I always like to start the second night; I think it’s important for your players to be able to watch on TV to see how hard everyone plays and how little room there is and how the game works. I thought that was good for us last night. Let’s play.
Can you compromise Washington with your speed given how tight things are going to be?
Babcock: I just think they’ve got to play to their strengths and we’ve got to play to ours. That’s one of them, for sure. We’ve got to play right and we’ve got to play fast. I think it’s really important. If we’re going to watch them, let’s watch them in warmup. When the puck is dropped, let’s play. Let’s do what we do and get after them.
Do you have a sense of what you’re going to see from your team tonight, or is there some unknown for you?
Babcock: From our own team, obviously, I know the players good and I know the situation good. We talked a little bit about that this morning. We asked the players, “What did you see last night? What stood out in your mind? What’s the one thing that jumped out in your mind?” to try to get prepared for they’re going to see. I think that’s what I tried to say when I said playing on the second night helps you for sure. And yet, the game is the same. The energy in the building is different, and the energy in each shift is different. You’ve got to find a way to bring your game within that game.
Did you encourage them to watch the games last night?
Babcock: I never did anything. I asked them if they watched the game. Sometimes during the year, you’d ask and no one watched. Lots of guys watched last night.
When you’re skating with Marner at the beginning of the morning skate, what are you chatting about? Can you share?
Was it hockey, or was it more –
Babcock: Today was hockey, yeah.
Is Eric Fehr close to coming back?
Babcock: I think so. They let him out of jail there today it looks like. Looks like the science project is almost over. That’s up to them. They tell you when they’re available. I think those guys have done a real good job with that. I’m not involved with that whatsoever. They let me know when they’re good to go. Obviously, when they start to practice, it’s a good indication.
Have you settled on those pairings? Or will you see how it looks?
Babcock: We’ll settle on them for the warmup, and then we’ll go from there.
The energy in the building tonight is going to be against you. How do you tell the guys not to worry about it?
Babcock: It will be if the game goes the right way for them, but there is nothing like a bunch of fans that have got long faces and are sitting on their hands and are nervous like you can’t believe. That, obviously, is the goal for us.
Does that make the first ten minutes so important?
Babcock: If I’m not mistaken, four road teams won last night, didn’t they?
How does the challenge change for young players in a series where they can be game-planned for more than in the regular season?
Babcock: They’re going to be prepared for it. I think what happens is is you arrive in the league and no one knows your name. I tell this story all the time about being at the draft. This might be crazy. I’m riding up the escalator, getting ready for the 2010 Olympics, with Landeskog and Nugent-Hopkins. They say, “Hey coach, nice to meet you!” I say, “Who are you guys?” Then when they told me I was embarrassed and I said, “Well, when you get to the national league and play good I’ll know your name.” Same thing happens here. When they play real good, they know your name, and they plan for you. I think you earn the right for that to happen.
When you watch what Jake Allen did last night for example and you see goaltending at a level beyond what you’re used to seeing, is that what you need?
Babcock: I think there are two parts to that. I think the defensive structure gets better. The shooters get tighter and press a little bit more. That makes it easier for the goalie to be bigger and make more saves. There are a whole bunch of things that go into that. Obviously, we want our goalie to play good.
For those of us who haven’t covered the playoffs in a while, is there still the pre-game one meeting with the officiating supervisor?
Babcock: Oh ya.
Did they tell you that they’re looking for something?
Babcock: Nope. It was good. Mick and I talked about farming and crops and whether it was dry or wet, and what the price of canola was. It was great.
Martin was saying yesterday how important it will be for the team to keep their composure when the games start. How important was it for the team to see that in the second half as they’ve gotten used to playing in the NHL?
Babcock: We’ve had our moments both ways. I think that happens to most teams. Composure is a wonderful thing. The more you talk to each other, the more you’re in the right spots, and the more composure you’re going to have. I think it’s a great opportunity for our group. We’re going to be ready to go here tonight. I just told them to enjoy today and relax and get ready for the game tonight. It’s going to be fun.