The series is going back to Washington knotted at 2-2 after the Leafs couldn’t quite climb out of another early hole in Game 4.
Your game in ten:
1. For the second consecutive game, the Leafs were second best on too many puck battles and got trounced en route to a 0-2 hole inside five minutes. The Kadri line / Gardiner – Zaitsev pair didn’t give the Leafs the start they needed against a Washington top line that flew out of the gates; they got worked over on two consecutive shifts before losing a defensive zone draw and leaving TJ Oshie open to finish off the 1-0 goal.
2. Alex Ovechkin then burnt the Leafs on their only penalty kill of the game after Tyler Bozak high-sticked Lars Eller. While there is larger discussion to be had about the Leafs play on the PK in this series so far (Anthony discussed it here in his post-game notebook), that goal came after the Leafs failed to get the puck out twice — first it was Komarov before Rielly followed suit up the wall. It was a bit surprising Brown was so far committed on the non-Ovechkin side of the ice, but breakdowns are inevitable on a PK if you don’t make good on clearances, especially against a lethal power play that needs one opening to score. The Leafs didn’t take two earlier opportunities to get it out before the second d-zone faceoff on that kill as well.
3. It is pretty clear Barry Trotz learned his lesson after matching up the Alzner/Schmidt – Carlson pairing against the Matthews line in the previous three games. Orlov – Niskanen played 11:30+ against the Matthews’ unit at 5v5 in this game, and they can expect more of that pairing as this series goes back to Washington and Trotz has last change. That said, while the possession share was even on the night in that matchup (much better, from the Caps perspective, compared to the overwhelming dominance of the Matthews line in Game 3), it wasn’t like they shut the line down completely. For one, the Matthews line scored with Orlov-Niskanen on the ice after Nylander pulled the puck through Orlov’s legs along the boards, spun back around him, and sent the puck back to Gardiner before the Hyman deflection on the Leafs’ first goal of the game.
4. When that line gets rolling on the forecheck and driving the net, it’s a handful for any pairing to handle down low. Another example of a strong shift from that line vs. Niskanen and Orlov here:
They had their fair share of chances, starting as early as their first shift when Willy went wide on Niskanen and one-armed it in front for Hyman to jam away at.
5. Matthews’ late goal came with Shattenkirk and Orpik on the ice (it seems like Orpik’s been on the ice for at least half of the Leafs’ goals in this series). Without last change on the road, we’ll see how the Leafs start off in Game 5. If the Leafs are slow out of the gates, swapping Brown and Nylander might be Babcock’s counter-adjustment, as we saw later on in this game. Unquestionably, Niskanen has been the Caps’ best D in this series. If Trotz hard matches Orlov-Niskanen against Matthews’ line, it would mean some shifts with Nylander lined up against Orpik and Schmidt down the right side, which might get Trotz scrambling again. The Leafs need Marner to get going again and take advantage of some of the secondary matchups, too.
6. A lot of twists and turns in a game that ended up 5-4 after 60 minutes, but if there was a singular turning point, it was the sequence leading up to third goal for the Capitals, with Tom Wilson scooping the puck off the goal line behind Holtby and then scoring on a nice redirect in front at the other end on the same shift.
The Leafs’ other two goals against were pretty bizarre. Wilson made it 4-1 before the first period was over after hitting Rielly from behind – it should be called, but it rarely is in open ice – after which Rielly took a skate blade to the chin and slowly made his way to the bench. Matt Hunwick defended a subsequent 2v1 poorly and Wilson made it 4-1 Capitals at the first intermission. Overall, the Leafs were outscored 4-1, outshot 15-6, and out-attempted 26-14 in the opening 20 minutes.
The 5-3 insurance goal late in the third was a keystone cops routine, with the Leafs somehow turning a 1-on-4 situation with possession of the puck into a prime scoring opportunity for TJ Oshie. Brown flubbed a pass straight to Andre Burakovsky, Connor Carrick tried to make a between-the-legs move while skating toward the Leafs’ zone and turned it over inside the blue line, and Oshie put it through Andersen’s legs. Ugly.
7. The Leafs eventually made it 4-3 with eight minutes left, but the 5-on-3 early in the period was another big moment in the game; score there and there was 19 minutes left to chip away at a one-goal Capitals lead. Anthony made a good point that we hadn’t seen that PP unit before — JVR, Matthews, Nylander, Bozak, and Gardiner (I assume it’s something they’ve been trying out in practice rather than something thrown together at the intermission). Holtby made five saves, but four of them were JVR or Kadri jamming the puck into Holtby from the side of the net. Gardiner was hesitant to unleash from up top, and the Leafs never opened up Matthews/Nylander for one-timers or pulled the Caps apart enough to make the mid-slot or backdoor play.
8. Thought Auston Matthews was a man possessed in the third period (the intensity on his face after scoring his goal, before glancing up at the clock to see how much time he had left to score another one, said it all), and that it was strange he wasn’t out there for the final 25 seconds. There was a long delay with the goal review followed by the confusion by the refs about which puck to use, and they had a timeout also.
9. They don’t ask how in the playoffs, but the fact that the Leafs managed to make a strong push in the final 20 is certainly preferable to disappearing quietly into the night. The Capitals managed to slow the game down to their desired pace in the second half of the second period and it looked like they were squeezing the life out of the Leafs through neutral ice at that stage. After out-possessing the Leafs 65-35 through two periods at 5v5, it would’ve been a pretty reassuring feeling for the Capitals if the Leafs went away at 4-2. Instead, the Leafs outshot the Caps 19-4, twice brought it within a goal, and put some heat on Washington all the way through to the final buzzer (that inexplicable Oshie goal was the killer). They’ve now put 14 goals past Holtby in this series and his reactions after each goal suggest he’s getting a little frustrated (he’s gotten some brutal bounces so far this series, to be fair, but he also got away with a few innocent-looking shots trickling through his pads in this game). It went from a convincing Capitals win to looking like the Leafs would’ve tied it up if the game went 61 minutes. Hopefully, it gives the Leafs something to build on as they look for a better start in Game 5 in Washington.
10. Series numbers through four games: Three of the four games have been decided in overtime, the cumulative score is 14-14, the Capitals have four power play goals to the Leafs’ three (the Leafs have been shorthanded 12 times, the Capitals 13), shot attempts are 51.33% in favour of Washington, shots are 150-147 in favour of Toronto, 5v5 scoring chances (per Corsica.hockey) are 31-29 for the Capitals, faceoffs are 156-143 in favour of the Leafs, each team has scored first twice, and the save percentages are .906 for Holtby and .905 for Andersen. The Leafs are playing the President’s Trophy winners about as tight as can be and this has all the makings of a series that will go seven. A pretty remarkable achievement for the young eight seed, no matter how this turns out.