You never know what you are going to get in the first period of a new playoff series.
Both teams had three full days to watch tape, game plan, and tweak their rosters. When all those adjustments collide, there are going to be some surprises.
That makes the start of a series anyone’s guess, and the Leafs sure got the upper hand on Washington early. Whether it was a lack of respect for the Leafs or an attempt to end the game early against a young team, the Capitals blitzed the Leafs on the forecheck with three men aggressively, and the Leafs took advantage of it.
The first goal of the game was a perfect example. The Capitals had three forwards at the hashmarks or lower, the Leafs easily chipped it by, and they scored a goal.
Even the second goal came on a neutral zone turnover that allowed the Leafs to easily gain the zone.
In the second period on the long change, the Leafs speed really showed and they were able to beat the Capitals defense, keep pucks in the offensive zone, and control the game. In the third, the Capitals started to have a proper high man on the forecheck and the neutral zone to make up for their defense’s lack of speed, while their physicality and cycling wore down the Leafs defense — which was basically playing with just four players — and they started controlling the game.
On the overtime winner, Washington had one man pressuring, one man taking away the far-side wall, and Wilson as the high guy.
The good news for the Leafs is that they can play with these guys, and their young players looked anything but nervous. Mitch Marner was, for my money, the best player on the team (think he’s played in some big playoff games lately?), and William Nylander had the puck on his stick seemingly all night. Matthews was solid and is going to learn to fight through playoff checking as the series goes on; he was knocking on the door a few times already.
It is an encouraging start for a young team playing the league’s best, but you don’t get points for moral victories in the playoffs. Now the focus has to be on continuing to use their speed and skill against a slower Washington defense to get a Game 2 victory.
– On the first shift of the game Ovechkin hammered Polak, the crowd got loud, and the puck to the point for a wide open shot, which Frederik Andersen calmly turned aside without a rebound. The overtime goal was weak, but throughout the night Andersen had a calming effect on the team and the game. They’ll need that from him all his series if they are going to have a chance.
– In the first period, there was a fantastic backcheck by Kasperi Kapanen on Marcus Johansson where he broke up the play, dropped his shoulder, and won the battle to clear the puck. Sometimes young players have the bad habit of trying to chip it by players and win battles with their sticks or speed, but they generally don’t get away with that against NHLers. Kapanen dropped his shoulder, went body first into the battle, caught Johansson off guard, and won the puck. Later in the game, he found Rielly at the far side of the offensive blue line after cycling in the Caps zone for a good scoring opportunity.
He also learned a good lesson about shooting high and wide in the NHL – he did so off the rush on a pretty nondescript play, and the result was a clean 3 on 2 for Washington in overtime. The Capitals almost scored and ended the game right there. When we talk about rookie mistakes and lessons, that’s one.
– In terms of in-game personnel adjustments, the only particularly noteworthy thing the Leafs did was use Brian Boyle on defensive zone draws with the other lines in order to have two centers on the ice. He’d go on with Kadri and Matthews for the draw and then head off when the puck cleared the zone.
– I also noticed the Leafs changed up their defensive zone faceoff play. All year they were rimming it to the far side blue line or blowing the zone for a flip out. In game one, they did the complete opposite, swinging the puck around to the far hashmark and dropping the winger low for a short pass and exit. The Leafs are trying to maintain possession and control the puck as much as possible.
– Auston Matthews had a great shot block on a Kuznetsov one-timer in the slot with 7:30 left in the second period. He played 18:09 on the night, had one shot on goal, and almost broke through a few times (I thought he was going to end the game in the dying seconds of regulation, but he couldn’t control the puck in the slot). Washington is a tough team to play against as a center because they are four deep down the middle and have a good defense, so they shadowed Matthews quite well and that actually opened up space for Nylander to wheel.
– William Nylander had a few stop ups off the rush where he had a little space to walk in for a shot after and elected to pass. He ended up with four shots on goal in the game, but they all came in the first period. Don’t know if Holtby got in his head or he wasn’t confident that he could score; that said, he probably has a top-two shot on the team alongside Matthews and he could have had an 8-10 shot night.
– Doesn’t get talked about much because they lost, but the Caps went 11:26 without a shot on goal in the second period. The most encouraging thing if you’re the Leafs is that you were able to hem them in their zone for long stretches of time. The Caps defense looked slow and had trouble containing the Leafs skilled, speedy forwards. There is something to build off of there.
– When Washington tied the game, they showed the Leafs bench and Babcock was talking to Matt Martin, who went out right after and was running around looking for contact, leading to a penalty. The penalty was bad, but minutes earlier, Niskanen crushed Brown and gave him extra shots while he was down on the ice and it went uncalled. The thing that drives people crazy is consistency. If you’re calling one, call both.
– Babcock turned to the fourth line to start the third period and is using them as a unit to calm the game down when Washington starts picking up momentum.
– It won’t get much attention in a losing cause, but Matt Hunwick quietly played well on the top pairing with Morgan Rielly. He is able to skate the puck out on his own and moves the puck well; his speed allowed him to keep a tight gap in the neutral zone and he wasn’t beat off the rush all night. Rielly also played a wound-up Ovechkin in overtime really well, which resulted in Ovechkin trying to cut in and falling in the process. The Caps were dumping it in Rielly’s corner throughout the night and taking runs at him; it’ll be worth keeping an eye on how he holds up physically throughout the series.
Five Questions for Game 2
1. With Zaitsev out for game two, is Martin Marincin going to dress again? He had some struggles early and obviously factored into the overtime winner. For what it’s worth, I thought it was a poor goal that we wouldn’t be talking about if Andersen made what was a routine save. In between those moments though, he settled in and put together some good shifts. Do you try to see if he builds on that in game 2, or do you give Marchenko a crack at it?
2. In practice before game one, Babcock shuffled Nylander and Brown and talked about the potential of changing up the lines. Now that they have lost game one and Washington took it to them for the majority of the second half of the game, does he act on it?
3. Does Josh Leivo have a chance of playing? Every goal counts, and he can score and has size. Matt Martin would likely have to come out, so it seems unlikely. Putting in the skill players for enforcers in 2013 helped swing the series (and no doubt Martin is much better than Orr and McLaren); do the Leafs try the same thing, with a new staff, again?
4. Are the Leafs going to change up their power play entry? They had a double drop pass going in game one and Washington was ready for it, overloading one side and forcing the Leafs’ hand. I think the Leafs can just do the one pass or skate it clean to start (Rielly was able to skate it in clean without dropping it), then set up from there. They only had one PP, so it’s tough to criticize. The Leafs need special teams to help them win the series and 0/1 on the PP wasn’t doing them any favours.
5. Did the Leafs miss their chance to strike while the iron was hot? When Washington settled in it was pretty clear they are the better team (no shame in that, they won the President’s Trophy). Even though the Leafs got off to a perfect start, they failed to get the result. As much as I’m curious to see how Washington comes out game 2, will the Leafs be discouraged at all? Particularly if Washington scores early and the series starts to mount on them.