The playoffs are once again upon us, and as the Caps get ready to take on their first-round opponent from Toronto, we weigh in on which unusual suspects will have an impact, where each team has the advantage, and what we think will happen.
Q1. Aside from the big names and "obvious" choices (Alex Ovechkin, Braden Holtby, etc.), which Capital do you see as having the biggest potential impact in this series?
Rob: As has been the story for virtually all of Ovechkin’s playoff career, the Caps’ success is going to be decided by the secondary scoring. Given we know Ovechkin and Backstrom are likely to see a log of Nazem Kadri, and the rest of the Leafs attack is essentially made up of rookie NHLers, Kuznetsov is going to have to have a big series. If he can’t take advantage of less experienced and physically mature players in the first round then the Caps have virtually no chance when they run into the real contenders.
Kevin: I’m with Rob. The secondary (and tertiary, and quaternary) scoring has come through for the team all year long. Just like it did last year. Until it didn’t anymore, which happened to be around this time. Which happens to be kind of important. The face of that evaporation was Evgeny Kuznetsov, who put up only 2 points in 12 games last spring after a breakout regular season. Kuznetsov had another great season, but if he doesn’t show up for the playoffs, his legacy is going to start resembling that of the team for which he plays.
Peerless: Andre Burakovsky. Let’s face it, Andre Burakovsky stunk on toast last spring. He has some atoning to do for one goal in 12 games in the 2016 postseason (so does Evgeny Kuznetsov, but he seems to me less of a wild card this time around). It is a lot to ask of a 22-year old, but if he has another one goal spring, 12 games might be the outside of the Caps’ range of games this spring. In this series, he has the ability to make Toronto play defense and adjust to his speed. The Caps were 21-2-3 this season when he recorded a point. They were 7-1-3 when he scored a goal (two of the extra time losses in the trick shot phase). That is a reflection of the importance of secondary scoring, especially when it is the other team wanting to run and gun. If the Caps can control pace, and Burakovsky can be productive, a second round probably awaits the Caps.
Jason: Like a soldier trudging through the jungle who just heard a “click” with his last footstep, I’m focused on Karl Alzner. Last postseason against the Pittsburgh Penguins, minivan-like defenseman Brooks Orpik got his doors blown off like Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City. The skating of the Pens’ Sheary, Hagelin, Kessel, Crosby, and Bonino revealed a cold, hard, fundamental truth about today’s NHL, and especially the Stanley Cup playoffs: speed kills. Alzner has performed conspicuously poorly this season, noticeably in situations where he has to turn and skate with streaking forwards, and in quick-twitch board battles that require laser-fast decisions, steps, and shoulder turns. Orpik seems to have shored up his game this season (undoubtedly aided by consistent pairings with speedy Nate Schmidt); now the attention, and perhaps the overall defensive success or failure of this year’s Washington Capitals, falls upon Karl Alzner.
Eric: I’ll be paying extra close attention to Justin Williams. For a guy who’s in his mid-30s and has missed only three regular season games since the start of the 2011-12 season, he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. His consistent point production and possession numbers, regardless of which line he played on, was a major reason why the Caps earned the league’s best record for the second year in a row. Not that I think they’ll need his vaunted Game 7 heroics this round, but his experience and no-nonsense approach to playing the game will be instrumental in a series win.
Tommy: Easy, it’s Lars Eller. The key difference between the Caps and the Stanley Cup champion Penguins of last year was the scoring depth at the forward position. I will always be a Mike Richards fan, but there was too much asked from him last year as a third line center. Eller was brought in specifically to address the obvious need as a responsive result of the Penguins series. He is crucial in the Caps’ success in this series and beyond.
Becca: I’m going to cheat and say that all three players on the team’s current third line are going to be vital, for exactly the reason Tommy pointed out - scoring depth. For the first time in recent memory, the Caps have the ability to throw out three lines (and sometimes four) that can all chip in with some sort of meaningful contribution, whether it’s pure point production or just holding the opponent in their own zone and getting the cycle game going. It’s the kind of attack that wears teams down, and it hinges on the often dangerous trio of Brett Connolly, Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky all stepping up.
Q2: Where do you think the Caps have the edge over the Maple Leafs, and vice versa?
Rob: The Caps have the advantage in net, on D, in forward depth, and in experience. There’s no reason the Leafs should even have the Caps sweating in this series, but it’s the Caps so we’ll of course find out how they manage to keep this one close. If the Leafs have an advantage anywhere it’s in their youth and the fact that the core of their team has no crushing playoff baggage. That shouldn't be anywhere close to enough to swing the outcome of the most lopsided matchup in the East, though.
Kevin: Let’s call a spade a spade. On paper, the Maple Leafs have no real advantage. Once you get into intangibles there might be some arguments to be made about the effect of a galvanized hockey town in Toronto, but the scales are tipped here. The only area of the game that I see favoring the Leafs are special teams. On the surface the teams looked fairly evenly matched. The Leafs boast the League’s 2nd best powerplay unit, but the Caps will match it with the 7th ranked PK unit. The Caps will trot out the 4th most efficient PP unit, and the Toronto will greet it with the 10th ranked PK unit.
Looks like two evenly matched squads when it comes to special teams, but the frequency of those scenarios is dictated by the guys in the stripes. To that point, Washington took 312 minor penalties during the regular season. Toronto finished 14th in the League, taking 283 minors. It’s easy to see special teams leaning in favor of the Leafs on account of the Caps’ struggles to stay out of the box.
Becca: I’ll agree that the Caps have the advantage in just about every meaningful department, with possibly a draw when it comes to special teams. As others have noted, on paper the Caps are the better team. So where do the Leafs have the upper hand? Well, there is something to what Babcock noted, about the pressure of being a contender - the Leafs are playing with house money at this point. They made the playoffs when nobody thought they would, they’re taking on a team that no one expects them to beat… even if they get swept (which I don’t think they will), this season has been a huge step forward for them.
Peerless: The Caps’ advantage? Everything but top-to-bottom speed and enthusiasm. The Caps have a credible advantage at almost, if not all of the skating positions. They have a significant advantage in goal. Experience? Alex Ovechkin has 84 games of postseason experience; Nicklas Backstrom has 83. The 18 skaters who dressed for the Maple Leafs in April and would presumably begin the playoffs have a combined 264 games of postseason experience.
Of that total, three players account for 195 games of that experience – Brian Boyle (100), Roman Polak (49), and James van Riemsdyk (46). Nine of those 18 skaters will be seeing their first postseason action in the NHL.As far as a Maple Leaf advantage is concerned, it’s Christmas morning, and they have their Red Ryder carbine-action, 200-shot, range model air rifle with a compass in the stock. Their appearance in the playoffs makes it a successful season and one on which they can build in the next few years to come. They have nothing to lose in this series.
with an early win or two. At that point, the series having been shortened, there is the possibility that the Leafs have enough speed and skill in a short enough span of time to steal what games they need to advance.
Jason: The Toronto Maple Leafs have absolutely nothing to lose. They are John McClane in Die Hard. They are your friend who just got dumped and decided to backpack across Europe to discover themselves. That makes them dangerous, because theoretically, there is no pressure on them. Combine that with the depth and breadth of their rookie talent - an inexperience that some might call a weakness, but I consider a demon-free tabula rasa - and you’ve got a dangerous team that needs to have the moral beaten out of them early, often, and mercilessly.
As for the Capitals, they have the advantage….well, literally everywhere else. Washington is the best team in hockey, and has been for two full seasons. To beat the Capitals four games out of seven, every other team in the league will need to play out-of-their-minds. Can it be done? Oh, hell yeah. Of course. Will it? We sure hope not, huh, folks?
Eric: I think the Caps have the advantage in everything but coaching and maybe in speed, and I say that not as a slight against Barry Trotz; both he and Mike Babcock are likely two of the best handful of coaches in the last 15 years of the NHL. The Leafs are certainly younger and quicker, but none of that negates - much less outweighs - the rest of the tangible advantages that Washington has in bottom-six depth, goaltending, all three defensive pairs, secondary scoring… want me to continue?
Tommy: Up and down the roster, the Capitals are the better team. But while the Leafs are young and inexperienced, what are they capable of? I think ideally you wouldn’t want to face Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner or William Nylander in their first playoff series. Every way on paper, this Maple Leafs team is really good in like three or four years. They have one of the best coaches in Babcock. This Leafs team was already better than projected, could they shock the hockey world further? I think the unknown is the only concern.
Rob: By all rights this is a Caps-in-4-or-5 type of series, but given the track Caps’ track record when they have the chance to close out a series I think the Leafs hang around and take it to 6.
Kevin: Caps in 5.
Peerless: Caps fans are going to fret, gnash their teeth, and yank fistfuls of their hair out by the roots, and that is before the first puck drop. The Caps have never swept a best-of-seven series, and I don’t think they will in this case. But I can see them getting out to a 3-0 lead, then maybe peek a bit at who they might be facing in the second round, enough of a loss of focus to lose a game. But I don’t see this series going past five games.
Jason: Caps in 5 games. The Capitals will take both games at home, lose the first in Toronto to an energized home crowd, then seal it up in games 4 and 5. Auston Matthews will score fewer goals than Marcus Johansson, and deciduous pretenders will topple before mighty conifers.
Eric: The narrative is set up all-too-nicely for a 2010-esque letdown, but let’s be real. This is the best team in hockey going up against a group of very young and raw, albeit hungry, players who made perhaps a bit more noise this year than was originally expected just by making the playoffs. My gut says Caps in 4, but my head says Caps in 5. And it won’t feel that close.
Tommy: *Broom emoji* but more realistically probably Caps in five or six.
Becca: I’m going Caps in 5.