This is it, folks. The best, and most follicle-pulling, molar-gnashing time of the year is here. The reason you play eighty-two games is for the chance to win sixteen more.
The Washington Capitals are in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and round one kicks off tonight in D.C. against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the holders of the second and final Eastern Conference wild card. What will this year’s edition of the greatest spectacle (and potential dropkick to the aorta) in sports hold for the Caps?
Well, I’m glad you asked. Here’s what could go oh-so-right, and oh-so-wrong, for the Capitals in the first round.
Plus, a little extra fun.
What Could Be Bad?
Those Darn Youths, With Their Rock Music and Their Speed!
The Maple Leafs raked in over 180 points this season from three skaters who can't even legally drink. Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Auston Matthews all hit the 60+ point mark, with Matthews stashing away 40 goals in those cavernous nostrils of his.
The task of stifling these children, as well as fleet-footed compatriots like Nazem Kadri, will take a village.
While the line of Matthews, Nylander, and Hyman is one of the top 10 possession lines in the league, that's nothing that Washington's de facto shutdown line of Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Justin Williams can't handle. The Capitals' second line allows the second-fewest Corsi against/60 in the NHL, the fewest goals-against/60 in the NHL, the fourth-fewest expected goals/60 in the NHL, and the best save percentage in the NHL. Essentially, they are not allowing their opponents to shoot, and when they do they're not getting good shots, and those are not going in.
Obviously, some of this is also attributable to Braden Holtby, as well as deployment, but the results are the same: the second line has largely shut down skilled opponents, something they've seen plenty of as they stagger punch-drunk through the cratered remains of Dresden-...er, the 2016-17 Metropolitan Division.
Of course, the true defensive onus comes down to the blueliners. With John Carlson fighting a lower-body injury but planning to play in Game 1, Karl Alzner gripping the precipitous edge of the age curve for dear life with just one finger, and Brooks Orpik still shaking last year's speedy undressing at the hands of the Penguins' forwards, the X factor in this series is speed.
If the Caps' defensemen can stick in the face of the Leafs' forwards on the rush into the zone, and make life a black-and-blue hell for anyone screening in front of the net, they can shut down Toronto, and will likely be ready for just about anyone else in the playoffs (including a rematch with Pittsburgh). Expect Orlov, Niskanen, and Shattenkirk to be stalwart standouts; keep your eyes on everyone else.
It's Not How You Start, It's...Okay, It Totally Is.
One of my all-time favorite quotes is from, believe it or not, boxer Mike Tyson. When asked how he planned to cope with his opponent's plan of attack, he responded, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
The Toronto Maple Leafs may not have Iron Mike's fists, but Father Time does. So, too, do expectations and a good memory.
Look, let's cut the crap: I'm terrified, aren't you? Not that the Capitals are going to fall short of the Stanley Cup, or even the looming spectre of death as it whispers black nothings in my ear about my own mortality. But the prospect of watching the Caps inexplicably fall apart, poop the bed, and exit the playoffs noisily and early like a flatulent drunk at a party? That scares me. I don't know that I can take another sad montage of locker clean-out day, of thousand-yard stares and ephemeral coulda-woulda-shouldas.
You know who else knows this? The shark who can smell this fear? Head coach Mike Babcock. He said as much on Wednesday when he described the position the Capitals are in as having a “major pucker factor.” If Toronto can come into Washington and win Game 1 or Game 2 at Verizon Center, you may as well pencil in a full week of self-doubt, self-loathing, and, God forbid, self-destruction.
What Could Be Good?
I'll Take Him, You Get Him, and...Wait, Who's Got THEM?
Welcome to my psychiatrist's office. Please, lie down and get comfortable. Now, I'm going to say a phrase, and you just tell me the first thing that springs to mind, hmm?
Okay, here we go.
Did you see goal sirens, hat tricks, and visions of firewagons dancing in your head? That's very common. Here's a prescription for Xanax, it should help take the edge off the next few weeks of playoff hockey.
In all seriousness, as good as the Capitals' defense is (they've allowed the fewest goals against in the NHL this season and have the reigning Vezina Trophy winner squatting ‘twixt the pipes), offense is still their league-wide calling card. And for good reason. This season, Washington had just one forward not score double-digit goals (Tom Wilson, 7), had two-thirds of their top line score 30+ goals, and can honestly just kill you from anywhere.
You manage to stop Ovechkin and Oshie somehow? Too bad Backstrom is a sniper, too. You throw your best match-ups out to shutdown the top line? Fine, choose the form of the Destructor: Kuznetsov, Johansson, Williams, Burakovsky, Eller, Connolly, Winnik...to quote gun-wielding Denzel Washington in Training Day, “How you want it? Closed casket?”
Compounding this reality is the fact that the Leafs' defense is slightly banged up at the moment. Toronto blueliners Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak are questionable-to-doubtful for Game 1, meaning the task of repelling the overwhelming barbarians at the gates will fall to defensemen that, at very least, Mike Babcock would rather not start.
That sound? Oh, that's just me villainously tenting my fingertips and mainlining pure uncut schadenfreude directly into my veins.
Evgeny, Anybody? Andre, Hombre?
The future of the Capitals' forwards corps is already on the roster, and you're well familiar with their love's keen sting: center Evgeny Kuznetsov and winger Andre Burakovsky. Last year was Kuznetsov's coming out season, and Burakovsky really continued to come into his own this year despite injury. But last postseason, both forwards all but disappeared - in 24 combined playoff games, the two chipped in just three total points.
Coach Barry Trotz has talked at length about the maturation of Burakovsky, and his new-found mental toughness that allows him to work through dry spells and break through scoring droughts. That's the type of experience that pays dividends in the Sisyphean slog of the postseason.
Kuznetsov was really still an over-performing youngster last postseason, playing in just his second full NHL season and overwhelmed with the unexpected gravity of his own stellar regular season performance. The Capitals needed him to keep up that pace in the playoffs; he couldn't do it.
This season, Kuznetsov is another year older and another year wiser, and the scoring responsibility is much more defused throughout the roster. Capitals fans used to bemoan the effect that carrying too much of the scoring load had on another be-sweatered Russian star, and saw how important is was that GM Brian MacLellan secured secondary scoring. Let's see if the same trick works for Kuznetsov.
And with the serious stuff complete, we now turn to the segment that laughs to keep from crying and drinks to keep from feeling...LIABLE TO LIBEL: A BAKER’S DOZEN LIES ABOUT THIS ROUND’S OPPONENTS!
1. Auston Matthews' exceptionally large, upturned nostrils serve two evolutionary purposes: to effectively dissipate body heat much like a fennec fox, and to expedite the process of looking down his nose at you when he inevitably turns you into the victim of a SportsCenter highlight.
2. Fellow rookie Mitch Marner grew up playing hockey in Thornhill, Ontario, and now has the pleasure of playing hockey in a thorn hill, in Ontario.
3. Also playing his first NHL season is center William Nylander, the son of former Capitals forward Michael Nylander. William's Maple Leaf teammates have begun asking him what to expect, as soon all their daddies will be Washington Capitals.
4. In fact, Toronto has three rookies who scored over 60 points each this season. All three youngsters are expected to sit out the postseason, though, as the Maple Leafs in the playoffs are considered a choking hazard.
5. Once every four years, in an apparent attempt to keep the rotation of the Earth in proper balance, Toronto makes the playoffs in what's referred to by climate scientists as a Leaf Year. We get an extra twenty-four hours, and Toronto never gains more than a week.
6. The Toronto Maple Leafs organization takes tremendous pride in being one of the Original Six, in the same way that your broke friend's ratty old clothes aren't decrepit, they're vintage.
7. Canada, ever eager to appropriate American culture long after the height of its relevance, was thrilled to see the Leafs sign Brooks Laich and Eric Fehr.
8. “No, we don't miss Daniel Winnik,” Toronto fans claim. “These stylish handlebar mustaches? We just felt like growing them. Why, did he ask about us?”
9. Mike Babcock is haunted by a ghost that constantly rips stinky farts that only he can smell.
10. When Toronto rapper Drake needs a particularly cutting insult written for him, he sends the local media this photo and waits for the replies.
11. Like a popular fraternity, the Maple Leafs are young, fun, and will never score more often than they are now.
12. Toronto believes that having a recently-deceased crackhead former mayor guarantees them playoff success. We’ll show them.
13. If you rearrange the letters in Nazem Kadri’s name, they spell A Zen Rink Cad, which is just about the most apt thing I’ve ever heard.
So there you have it, boys and girls; the big dance starts tonight. I hope the Caps have their shiny knife blade tap shoes sharpened up. The quest for the Stanley Cup begins in D.C.
Good luck, and as always: Go Caps!