After being significantly outplayed on home ice in Game 4, the Maple Leafs return to Washington looking to push the Capitals to the brink of elimination in what is now a best-of-three series.

The Leafs made a comeback of sorts in Game #4, getting back within one goal twice in the third, but they were still vastly outplayed for the majority of the game. Toronto led shots 19-3 and shot attempts 37-8 in the third to give the Capitals a scare, but they entered the third down 4-2 and didn’t capitalize on an early 5-on-3 man advantage. Shot attempts were 31-18 in favour of the Capitals after 40 minutes.

Mike Babcock’s two matchup units, the Kadri line and the Gardiner-Zaitsev pairing, were in trouble early against a great start from Washington’s top line. By the end of the night, Ovechkin’s line nearly doubled the shot attempts from the game before. While it’s inevitable that Washington’s top line will be dangerous in bursts, continued dominance to the degree we saw in Game #4 is a recipe for losing the series.

The Bozak line had another quiet game. While Bozak and JVR and Marner all have a point-a-game in this series so far thanks to their recent power play production, the last two games haven’t been good enough from the even-strength perspective and the Leafs need them to get back to exploiting secondary matchups as they did earlier in the series on the road.

What to Expect

A lot of Leafs fans cautioned against optimism when Karl Alzner came out of the lineup thinking that Nate Schmidt is actually the better player. This has certainly rung true so far, as the Schmidt- Carlson pairing averaged a 66.6 CF% in Game 4 and Schmidt has points in two consecutive.

A contributing factor to that pairing’s performance was how differently Trotz managed his bench on Wednesday. Orlov and Niskanen were hard matched against the hot Matthews line, giving them even more defensive zone starts. Now with the Capitals at home, Matthews and Nylander can expect a large dosage of Trotz’s prime matchup pair again tonight. Schmidt-Carlson, meanwhile, were used for tons of offensive zone starts, which left Shattenkirk with his lowest TOI of the series.

Trotz has specific roles for his first two pairings, which ends up meaning Shattenkirk sees relatively few 5on5 minutes for a player of his skill level. It’s also hard to justify putting a right-handed defenseman on his off-side in the middle of a playoff series (which meant Schdmit slotted in next to Carlson after the Alzner injury), so the number of powerplays the Capitals get determines Shattenkirk’s TOI. There was only one power-play situation for the Caps in Game #4, and the Leafs were rolling their top lines over the boards playing catch-up in the third, leaving Shattenkirk with only 13 minutes and change of ice time in Game 4.

The Leaf forward line that performed well in their matchup in Game 4 was the Boyle line. So far in the series, they’ve forced Trotz to limit his fourth line’s ice time severely. In Game 4, he bumped up Tom Wilson onto the team’s third line to good effect (with Brett Connolly down to Line 4) and rolled three for most of the game.

There will a ton of emphasis on Toronto’s start tonight, and rightfully so. They’ve been beaten to pucks early in the last two games and Washington has managed to generate some heavy shifts early in first periods which have left the Leafs swimming upstream:

We’ve got to execute. We’ve got to start on time. You’ve got execute and you’ve got to compete at a high level. I thought they competed better and got after us. I didn’t think we responded in a competitive nature. I thought it was our least competitive game of the four from the faceoff circle to the battles on the wall, to the races to the puck, to getting to the net to being boxed out. Anything competitive, I thought they had the edge. What happens is they look fast and you look slow. They wear you out in your zone. Their neutral zone forecheck works. You don’t have a forecheck. You’re always changing lines. You just yell to the goalie, “here they come again!”
– Mike Babcock on Thursday

When this happens and the Capitals carry a lead late into the game off of early goals, they can shift into more of a 1-1-3 and clog up the neutral zone. The Leafs feed on space through neutral ice to generate the type of speed and “organized chaos” they thrive on.

Leafs fans will be hoping their team can come out with a quicker and more organized start tonight. Although they’ve proven they can outplay the Capitals when they’re on their game and “playing fast,” they face another test tonight against a Washington team that dominated Game 4 after a few strategic changes.

There were no changes to the lineup in Toronto’s morning skate, but we could easily see Brown rotate back onto Matthews’ line in Nylander’s place without last change, depending on how the game shakes out early.


Game Day Quotes

Mike Babcock on his young team approaching big playoff games:

I think what helps is your whole career now. That’s why these kids stepped right in. You go to the U18s, the World Juniors. You put yourself in all of these situations. The strength and conditioning – all of those things are way more advanced than they used to be. In reality, though, in big moments – especially with a young team – they’re counting on veterans players to lead their group. We’re counting on lots of guys to be important for us who are kids. You can make all the excuses for them you want, but the reality is we’re here. Let’s play. Next year doesn’t count. If I look at the teams that are out or if I look at the team that missed… At the start of the year, if you had asked me who I think will be in the Stanley Cup Final, one of the teams that missed the playoffs I would’ve picked. Make good on your opportunity.

Babcock on Andersen’s ability to bounce back:

I think he’s a good goaltender, and that’s the biggest thing right there. When you’re a good goaltender and you’ve got confidence in yourself, you’ve got a foundation built there to go back to. Sometimes it doesn’t go your way. That’s life. Over an 82-game spread, things settle out. In the playoffs, you don’t have as much time for them to settle out. You’ve got to be good every night and you’ve got to dig in.

Babcock on Auston Matthews’ Game 4:

I think he just keeps getting better and better. I thought he was outstanding last game. He played when the game was on the line. He pushed us back. He’s a 200 footer with and without. He’s learned a lot this year. But what I like about him is he’s just steady and has a great assessment of himself. He doesn’t get ahead of himself. Takes ownership of what he does good and what he does wrong. Obviously, he’s got a bright future.

I thought, in Game 4, he was really good. I didn’t think we had all hands on deck in Game 4 like we did in other games. It was the least competitive we were in the series. You’ve got to limit those or else you’re not in a series. I think he’s been good.

Braden Holtby on some of the bad bounces he’s dealt with in this series:

There hasn’t been a lot of fortune luck that way, but at the same time, they’ve been putting bodies in front and throwing it there. That’s been part of our game plan at certain times, too. Some of those won’t happen again; a couple went off two or three things. If that’s part of their game plan, it’s more about taking away areas. If shots are going to one side, it’s not about catching it or using your blocker, it’s more about getting your whole body there to limit the chances of a deflection. It’s working on the screens, the sightlines, and controlling your body more. We’ve worked on that and we’ll be better at it.

Barry Trotz on some of the bounces Holtby’s faced:

A lot of the goals have been deflections. Even the power play goal – it goes off Orlov’s skate and redirects. There was one that went off Brooksy. Half of them are just going off people. That’s the thing about throwing pucks to the net and why you hear coaches say, “we’ve got to get more pucks to the net and more traffic.” Pucks start bouncing in funny ways. We can box out a little bit better. We can get some skin on people when the chance is there. Other than that, those are the bounces sometimes. You can’t do anything about a linesman in the way. It’s part of the game. We’ve had some funky things for Braden in the last couple of games.

Jay Beagle on his team’s strong starts in the last few games:

It’s urgency. Backstrom’s line has been unreal getting the energy going right from the drop of the puck.


Washington Capitals Projected Lineups

Forwards

Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – T.J. Oshie
Marcus Johansson – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Justin Williams
Andre Burakovsky – Lars Eller – Tom Wilson
Daniel Winnik – Jay Beagle – Brett Connolly

Defensemen

Dmitry Orlov – Matt Niskanen
Nate Schmidt – John Carlson
Brooks Orpik – Kevin Shattenkirk

Goaltenders

Starter: Braden Holtby (2-2, .906 SV%)
Backup: Philipp Grubauer

Injured: Karl Alzner
Scratched:
 Taylor Chorney, Paul Carey


Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

Forwards

Leo Komarov – Nazem Kadri – Connor Brown
Zach Hyman – Auston Matthews – William Nylander
James Van Riemsdyk – Tyler Bozak – Mitch Marner
Matt Martin – Brian Boyle – Kasperi Kapanen

Defensemen

Jake Gardiner – Nikita Zaitsev
Morgan Rielly – Matt Hunwick
Martin Marincin – Connor Carrick

Goaltenders

Starter: Fredrik Andersen (2-2, .905 SV%)
Backup: Curtis McElhinney

Injured: Eric Fehr, Nikita Soshnikov, Roman Polak
Scratched: Josh Leivo, Alexey Marchenko


Morning Skate: Babcock, Andersen, JVR, Boyle