It’s hard not to be excited about the upstart Toronto Maple Leafs, who find themselves in the post-season for the first time since 2012-2013 and just the second time since 2003-2004. But they drew the Washington Capitals in the first round, who finished the regular season with a Presidents’ Trophy-winning 55-19-8 record.
Toronto, conversely, finished the year with a 40-27-15 record and skidded into the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. On the surface, the Maple Leafs are in tough against the Capitals.
But Washington hasn’t advanced past the second round of the playoffs since 1998 and their tendency to fall apart could be the window of opportunity Toronto is looking for, especially with the right roster to get the job done.
The Capitals aren’t pushovers by any extent and they’ve made some adjustments to become a four-line team. They learned from their mistakes against the Pittsburgh Penguins last season and padded the stats with five forwards who scored at least 20 goals and 11 players who scored at least a dozen goals.
The Maple Leafs are looking forward to an opportunity to put rookie Auston Matthews through his paces. The 19-year-old is a Calder Trophy favourite, pulling off 40 goals in his debut season for a total of 69 points. He scored 21 points on the power play and had eight game-winners. He’ll see most the coverage in the post-season.
Toronto’s impressive line of rookies continues with Mitch Marner, who had 61 points in 77 games and averaged 16:48 of ice time. The Ontario native consistently puts up points and is a terrific passer, plus he’s reliable in big game situations. Size is an issue, but he’s made a lot out of his 160-pound frame.
William Nylander also had 61 points this season, including 22 goals. He had nine goals on the power play and plays any forward position. The Maple Leafs love his playmaking ability and skating stride, but strength is a concern.
Leo Komarov impressed with a 32-point campaign and saw 17:04 of ice time a game. He plays a rugged brand of hockey and agitates the opposition, which could make him an unsung hero of these playoffs. Connor Brown is also a solid option. He scored 20 goals in the regular season and averaged 16:12 of ice time.
Alex Ovechkin is still the principal offensive threat for the Caps, even if he only scored 33 goals in the regular season – his lowest total in a full season since 2010-2011. But the Great Eight seems to be coming around at the right time, with 14 points in his last 15 games and an average of 4.6 shots on goal over the past 18 games.
Nicklas Backstrom had 86 points in 82 games, including 23 goals. He had eight goals on the power play and averaged 18:15 of ice time a game. He’s one of the most persistent players in the league and has a slick shot he can pull out of nowhere. Backstrom can still be hounded in a physical game, however.
Evgeny Kuznetsov is a dynamic player and that’s a good thing with Ovechkin peaking. The Russian centre had 59 points in 82 games, including 19 goals. He had four game-winners and averaged almost 17 minutes of ice time a game.
30-year-old T.J. Oshie had 56 points in the regular season, including 33 goals. He averaged almost 18 minutes and can score goals when the attention is on Ovechkin. Oshie plays a big game despite his 5’11, 189-pound build and he can take opponents down in the open ice. His aggression gets him in trouble sometimes.
Defensively, the Maple Leafs have their work cut out for them. The Capitals play an up-tempo, shoot-first game and a lot of responsibility will fall on Jake Gardiner to hammer things down. The 26-year-old blueliner averages 21:32 of ice time a game and had 43 points in the regular season. He likes to run the attack, but he makes mistakes and will have to learn to be more responsible in his own end.
Rookie Nikita Zaitsev is one of Toronto’s most dependable defencemen. He averages 22:01 of ice time a game and managed 36 points in 82 games, including four goals. He’s not the most physical dude in the league, but he can move the puck and plays well on special teams.
Morgan Rielly follows a similar M.O., with great skating ability but problems in the physical realm. The 23-year-old averages 22:10 of ice time a game and put up 27 points in the regular season, but he can get caught out by fast forwards and muscled around in his own end. Luckily, Roman Polak will be there to provide steadiness. The 30-year-old can contain the rush, too.
The Capitals also have a speedy defenceman in Matt Niskanen. He averages 22:10 of ice time a game and brings a big point shot. He had 39 points in the regular season, including five goals, and he’ll be able to handle the load in the playoffs. The physical side of his game still needs work, but he’s a great skater.
Karl Alzner plays a shutdown game and will be tasked with clearing the crease. He’s a durable defenceman, averaging 19:47 of ice time a game and coming up with 13 points in the regular season. He can handle more minutes and will get them against Toronto.
Kevin Shattenkirk was a quality deadline addition. He has 56 points in 80 games and plays solid transition hockey. He averages almost 20 minutes of ice time a game and will get a good look at Matthews. Dmitry Orlov has the mobility to put up points, with 33 points in 82 games in the regular season.
Frederik Andersen went 33-16-14 in the regular season, with a 2.67 goals against average and a .918 save percentage. He had four shutouts and will have to play well to keep the Maple Leafs in it. He did have a collision with Tom Sesito and sat out a game at the end of the season, but he’s expected to play in Game One.
If Andersen isn’t good to go, the responsibility falls to Curtis McElhinney. He’s never started a post-season game and went 8-8-2 in the regular season, with a 2.70 goals against average and a .917 save percentage. He’s a hard worker, but consistency is an issue.
Braden Holtby has been dominating the stats all season long. He’s second to Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky in goals against average and save percentage and tied with Cam Talbot for the league lead in wins with 42. His nine shutouts lead the NHL and he’ll be ready for the Maple Leafs.
Phillipp Grubauer went 13-6-2 in the regular season, with a .926 save percentage and a 2.04 goals against average. The 25-year-old German is not ready to be a starter at the NHL level, but he’s learning under one of the best in the business and gives the Capitals a chance to win.
Who Will Win
The Capitals have a lot to prove and that could be their undoing. The Maple Leafs are riding high and exceeding expectations, so every playoff game is a win. But Washington must prove they’re not going to flake out in yet another post-season, which makes them dangerous.
Toronto could play spoiler and that’s where the series gets interesting. Matthews has the potential to emerge as a serious all-around star and Andersen could steal a few games. It could happen. Honest.
My call: Washington in six.