2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round Prospectus: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Washington Capitals
Having five of the seven Canadian teams in the Playoffs is good for the sport. Especially the two biggest bastions of Canadian hockey: Montreal and Toronto, the home of hockey. The Leafs are supposedly a year ahead of schedule and “shouldn’t be here”, but someone forgot to tell Mike Babcock — who looked about as pleased when his team clinched a playoff berth as someone getting a prostate exam — and his young troops.
Toronto Maple Leafs (WC2/Atlantic) vs. Washington Capitals (Metropolitan Division Champion/President’s Trophy)
On paper, this appears to be a mismatch for several reasons: Toronto’s youth, Toronto’s injuries on the back end, and the overall skill and experience of the Capitals. However, games are not played on paper, they are played by little men inside your TV set. The Leafs will be ready. iron-jawed Mike will see to it.
Washington has been here before. They were destined to at least get to the Cup Finals in 2016, and their bottom six — and honestly, every line outside of the Backstrom line — betrayed them. They clearly did not possess the speed and skill to compete with those on the Penguins’ bottom six, and that was the difference in the series; including Nick Bonino (3C) and his series-winning goal. Braden Holtby has to be better. He won the Vezina Trophy in 2016 in deserved fashion, but he had repeated troubles giving up goals through his five hole.
The Caps are actually better this year than last. They don’t really have any weaknesses. They roll four lines and each of them produces and does what coach Barry Trotz expects of them. Backstrom is known to start out the playoffs well, and wilt as they progress. That drags down Alex Ovechkin and TJ Oshie, both of whom scored 30+ goals this regular season. The scenario with Backstrom occurred in 2016. The Caps were far too much for the listless Flyers, so they won that series with relative ease. But the farther you go along, the tighter the checking becomes, the more difficult it becomes for your top two lines to produce consistently, and the more reliance you must have on your secondary scorers to come up big. Last year, the Caps’ bottom six could not get it done. this year looks a lot more promising. The Lars Eller line, flanked by Andre Burakovsky and Brett Connolly, has been consistently good all season. Eller, acquired via trade with Montreal, gave the Caps an element that they did not have last season: a mixture of size, skill, speed and willingness to go to the dirty areas and finish. Burakovsky has begun to come into his own, as a result. And the acquisition of Connolly and subsequent addition to that line has salvaged him from “bust” status with a fine season. The fourth line of Jay Beagle, Tom Wilson and Daniel Winnik brings the physicality, energy, forechecking and occasional goal-scoring that is expected from them. One would think that Tom Wilson, a former 1st Round pick, would at least be productive by now, instead of being another Chris Thorburn. He has excelled in his enforcer role. Teams know when he is on the ice. The same goes for Winnik, who isn’t afraid to drop his gloves, if need be.
The Caps’ defence is the best in the league. It is arguably not even close. They boast two-way threat John Carlson, one of the two quarterbacks of the team’s power play, and shutdown lefty Karl Alzer, blockbuster acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk and Dmitri Orlov, and speedster Nate Schmidt and +/- king Brooks Orpik. All Holtby has to do is be consistent and the Caps should — SHOULD — advance.
There is a reason the games are played. Favorites don’t always win. Especially in hockey. Toronto will be game, spearheaded by almost-certain Calder Trophy winning rookie Auston Matthews (40 G, 29 A, 69 P) and other Calder candidates who were major scorers for them, William Nylander (22 G, 39 A, 61 P), Mitchell Marner (19 G, 42 A, 61 P), Connor Brown (20 G) and steadied by Nazem Kadri (32 G, 29 A, 61 P). James Van Riemsdyk came on strong down the stretch. He will need to continue that for the Leafs to have a chance.
The concern for Toronto, in what would erstwhile be a much more even series, is the relative health of Frederik Andersen, who took another blow to the head from an opposing skater for the second time in a month, and Nikita Zaitsev, who will miss Game 1. Toronto’s blue line is going to come under the microscope, because they will get no shifts off with the aforementioned four lines that Barry Trotz gladly rolls in order to keep his top players fresh.
Photo Credit: Jeff Burke, Getty Images
Is Andersen ready? Are his playoff debacles in Anaheim going to follow him to Toronto? For Toronto, they are certainly not content in merely making the playoffs, despite getting to this point sooner than most expected. However, even if their forwards produce, how much can their defence hold down the Caps? Whereas the Caps have the ability to shut down the Leafs, as they did a week ago, in a game the Leafs really “needed” to win. A semi-playoff game. If that most recent match up is any indication, the Leafs are not ready. But they will give the Caps everything they want. Air Canada Centre may be good for a win or even two. If the Leafs can pull off a split in Washington in Games 1 and 2, this series could get interesting. The Caps have all the pressure. Sticks can get gripped tighter if the series reaches a sixth of seventh game. We’ll give the youthful exuberance of the Leafs two games, but we can’t realistically pick them to win this series, although it would not entirely surprise if they somehow did.
Call: WASHINGTON IN 6.