The Toronto Maple Leafs are leading a playoff series for the first time since beating the Ottawa Senators in game 7 on April 20th, 2004.
In typical Leafs fashion, it was about as dramatic as possible – down 2-0 early, a full two minute 5v3 penalty kill, a dramatic end to the second period to tie it, Washington hitting the crossbar in the dying minutes of regulation, all capped off by an overtime winner.
Now, the overwhelming favourites are suddenly down 2-1 in a series that is looking like an instant classic.
This was a game full of big moments for the Leafs. There was Nazem Kadri’s momentum-swinging shift, Auston Matthews and William Nylander’s first playoff goals, Frederik Andersen’s big save before the Leafs tied it up and, of course, the overtime winner.
To the eye, it was a strange game. For large portions of the first half, the Leafs did not look like they deserved to be in it. Washington came out flying and took advantage of a rusty Nikita Zaitsev for two quick goals and the Ovechkin line was dangerous every time they hopped over the boards. The Leafs were able to respond with the Matthews line, which was dominant all night (underscored by William Nylander’s CF% of 82; he was on the ice for 23 shot attempts for and only five against at 5v5).
Penalty trouble in the second for the Leafs had the game teetering on being over. Even though Washington didn’t capitalize, they were climbing into control of the game, especially when the Leafs took another penalty right after. Once Toronto finally took care of that – they didn’t take another penalty the rest of the game – they handily outplayed Washington:
Game three was the first time in this series that the third period belonged to Toronto, which you can be sure was an emphasis for the team. They controlled play and outshot Washington 9-3 in the frame, including a really good power play where Matthews almost put the Leafs up in regulation on a cross-ice pass from Nylander. They built on those power play chances with some tweaks to their entries (more on that below) and ended it on the PP in overtime.
The series is only halfway over and the second half of it is sure to be much more difficult than the first half. But this is not a fluke, and the Leafs are not lucky to be in the position they are. They deserve full marks for earning this series lead.
– There was talk leading into game three of Washington changing up their lines – specifically moving Alex Ovechkin to the Evgeny Kuznetsov line in order to change around the matchups. Ultimately, Washington kept everything the status quo, which included the matchups remaining the same. The result was a Leafs win where they out-attempted the Capitals 71-52. At some point, I am expecting Barry Trotz shakes things up and game four would seem like the logical time to do so if you’re Washington.
– Ovechkin only played 15:08 in game three, and was sixth among Washington forwards in ice time in game two. What is going on there?
– The Leafs technically only made the Brian Boyle trade at the deadline, but bringing up Kasperi Kapanen feels like another trade at this point. The fourth line is night and day compared the first half of the season when players like Ben Smith and Peter Holland were mainstays. Their defense is obviously a weak point, but there was not much available on the market. Failing that, the Leafs did the next best thing in rounding out their forward group. Whenever the game swings in momentum (particularly after goals against), Babcock is putting out the fourth line to get the puck in deep, get physical, slow the game down, and create some havoc in front of Washington’s net.
– I know that Scotty Bowman was a big proponent of in-game momentum and controlling it, which I’m sure Babcock learned a bit from him while in Detroit. So far this series, I’m also reminded of Babcock’s McGill speech where he referenced a plaque Bowman gave to him:
“The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, the education, the money, than circumstances, than failure, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company … a church … a home.”
Before the series, Babcock said they were going to Washington to win. If you listen to every post-game interview from the players, they talk about believing in themselves and seem confident that they cannot only compete with these guys but beat them. It sounds easy for them to say that now, but literally nobody was picking them to win this series even a week ago.
– The Leafs didn’t make Zaitsev’s life easy upon returning, putting him right on the top pairing and giving him the Ovechkin matchup. He got caught out of position on both goals, but I thought it was interesting as well — as a vote of confidence — that the Leafs kept him there and allowed him to work his way through it. He ended up playing 20:22 on the night, fourth-highest on the defense, including PP and PK time. It is not easy to settle down after a start like that. Good on him.
– Kuznetsov’s goal came off a bad Andersen rebound. Even after that, he could have had the shot that went in. He did get Kuznetsov back later in the second with a huge pad save going post to post, which kept the Leafs close and allowed them to tie it.
– Barry Trotz said it after the game, and the HNIC panel outlined some of this for the 5v3, but Washington is missing a lot of prime opportunities. They missed the net five times on the 5v3; the Leafs did a pretty good job keeping a tight triangle and taking away the big one timer or cross-ice play, but Washington played it poorly and Shattenkirk walked in multiple times without even forcing Andersen to make a save. The Kuznetsov play mentioned above would be another example, plus he hit the crossbar all alone in the final minutes of regulation. Ovechkin also walked in a few times with Andersen closing the door. Babcock referenced fine-tuning some details after the game; I think a lot of it will be body positioning and rotating properly in the defensive zone.
– I mentioned the reach and frame of Martin Marincin last game and it came up big for the Leafs on the PK tonight. He was able to neutralize Backstrom a few times on the left side of the defensive zone. The disconnect with Marincin is that he’s strong defensively and excellent on the PK but he really struggles with the puck and resorts to going off the glass often instead of making clean plays. His confidence is growing a bit as he plays more – including a really nice cut behind his own net to step in front and shoot the puck down on the PK – but he looks really uncomfortable carrying the puck.
– I have to give Zach Hyman huge credit for the Leafs go-ahead goal in the second. He took on two Caps and created the space for Matthews and Nylander to do their work there. He still struggles with the puck on his stick at times, but he is coming up big in the playoffs, where the hockey is more physical and you have to fight for your ice.
– I could watch a collection of clips of Leo Komarov lining up for faceoffs all day long. He is driving Washington absolutely crazy. He puts his stick down hard over his opponent’s stick, kicks his leg in front, doesn’t even look at the guy, and moves right into the faceoff dot. With all the talent on the team, he isn’t getting the same attention/love he has in years past, but he’s playing a really important role on this team on the shutdown line with Kadri as a physical, responsible veteran.
– Washington’s defense is slow and the Leafs have been able to wheel around the outside and get pucks to the middle of the ice –- particularly Nylander. He had one play in the third where he worked up the wall, made it look like the puck was going to the defenseman, and then cut in for a scoring chance that was ultimately knocked off his stick. It didn’t result in anything concrete, but the Leafs are getting inside on the Caps. Look at where the majority of their shots came in game three; all of their goals came right in the ‘house,’ too. Washington has a good chunk of their shots coming from the top of the circle and above.
– Nice adjustment by the Leafs on the PP entry. They were skating it up with the drop and then hitting the winger standing still on the wall, who was trying to sauce pucks through to the forward driving the net. It was often resulting in turnovers, or — when it worked — a rush opportunity that Washington would clear right after the save. The Leafs’ first PP of the night was poor due to their entry struggles. On the second PP, Nylander and Marner carried it in, which happened in overtime as well. For the winning goal, instead of saucing it through to the man driving the net, the Leafs chipped it down the wall, got the puck back with speed, and scored the winner.
– I was wondering if Tyler Bozak had a few more big goals in him. Against Boston in 2013, he scored a beautiful shorthanded breakaway goal to break a 0-0 tie and kick-start their comeback in that series. Easy to forget now, but he missed game six and seven in that series. This season, he scored a goal in the final minute to beat Boston in regulation in a huge game down the stretch and he scored in the playoff-clinching Pittsburgh game. There haven’t been many big games during his Leafs tenure, but he’s shown a bit of a knack for coming up big when there is.
5 Questions for Game Four
1. Is Martin Marincin out? If so, then Alexey Marchenko most likely draws in. That would give them two righties on the third pairing unless they break it up. The other option is calling up a Marlie who has not played a game with the team this year. That could be a young guy, or — as mentioned in the comments yesterday — Steve Olesky. Either way, not good.
2. If Marincin is out, what happens to the PK? The three players the Leafs load up on the PK when they are in the line-up: Roman Polak, Matt Hunwick and Marincin. That would now be down to just Hunwick. Morgan Rielly and Zaitsev would obviously take on more 4v5 minutes and they have started to give Gardiner some time on the PK in the playoffs. I think you’d have no choice but to play him there (he’s playing amazing right now, by the way, and I think he’d be fine).
3. Who is going to QB the power plays? Rielly only got PP time because Zaitsev was injured, but since then, he scored in game two and assisted on the winner in game three. Zaitsev did play on the PP, too, and has been productive there throughout the season. Gardiner isn’t going anywhere when it comes to PP time, so it’s between Rielly and Zaitsev.
4. If Washington does separate Ovechkin-Backstrom, who gets what matchup? Is Kadri going to keep going up against Backstrom (who has been their best player this series for my money), which would leave Matthews to deal with Ovechkin-Kuznetsov suddenly? I’d probably start it like that and see how it goes.
5. Can the Leafs keep their emotions in check? I don’t know if I’d say they have them completely on the ropes, but they are in their heads and the pressure is mounting. The ACC will be rocking for game four and fans are beginning to taste it. The Leafs did not play off the energy well in the beginning of game three and it’s only going to get louder for game four. I think at this point it’s pretty clear the Leafs are going to make this a battle if they just play within themselves and their system. It is important to channel their emotions and keep this train rolling.