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Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: Washington Capitals vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
- Updated: April 12, 2017
Lock the doors and ready your jerseys, it’s playoff hockey time. Sixteen teams will battle it out for the Stanley Cup, the best trophy in professional sports. Last year, the Pittsburgh Penguins hoisted the cup after defeating the San Jose Sharks in six games. This year could be interesting with many of the top teams coming out of the Metropolitan Division. One of these teams is the number one-seeded Washington Capitals.
The Capitals finished yet another historic season, winning their second consecutive Presidents’ Trophy. Led by superstar Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals have become the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. However, regular season success means nothing without a Stanley Cup. The Capitals have seemingly gone all in this year and are looking poised for a long run. Their journey to the cup begins with a tough matchup with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Star Matchup: Alex Ovechkin vs. Auston Matthews
For years, Alex Ovechkin has drawn criticism for his inability to win in the playoffs. This is unfair since he is always Washington’s best postseason player. This year, all eyes are on the Great Eight. His offensive numbers took a hit this season, but maybe it’s because he’s saving his best for the playoffs. He is leading by example in other areas such as physical play and sheer effort. He will face tough competition in this year’s probable Rookie of the Year.
Matthews had a huge rookie season for the Leafs. He led all NHL rookies in goals (40), showing his knack for goal-scoring. This kid can flat-out play. He has elite skating ability and some of the best hands in the league. He scored four goals in his first career game, for Pete’s sake. Washington’s defense will have to give extra attention to Matthews whenever he is on the ice.
Between the Pipes: Braden Holtby vs. Frederik Andersen
In my opinion, the most important component for a playoff team is goaltending. You need great goaltending to stay alive in the postseason. Enter Braden Holtby. Already one of the best in the league, Holtby will have to be his usual excellent self for Washington to advance to the next round. He struggled against Toronto this year, with one loss and being pulled in another contest. However, Holtby has played very well over the last few weeks and should be a stud for the Capitals in net.
Andersen was a big reason why the Leafs made the playoffs. With 33 wins this year, he proved to be worth the first year of his five-year extension when he was traded from the Anaheim Ducks. He will be Toronto’s most important player as he faces one of the league’s most dangerous offenses. It was uncertain if he would be available for Game 1 due to a head injury. However, CBS Sports confirmed today that he would be in net for Toronto tomorrow night.
This series is truly a battle of the special teams units. Two of the top power plays in the NHL face off against two of the best penalty kills. First, let’s look at Washington. They tied Pittsburgh with the third best man-advantage at 23.1% and had the 7th best penalty kill. Washington boasts an abundance of power play weapons. Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, TJ Oshie, the list is endless. Anyone they plug in can be a valuable cog to the offense. Their penalty kill is equally as impressive. They can block shots, take away passing lanes, and hound puck carriers better than their seventh rank conveys.
Toronto’s wealth of young talent makes their power play something to be respected. They ranked second behind the Buffalo Sabres as well as 10th on the penalty kill. Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander are their big weapons and have to be accounted for every shift for the unit. Toronto boasts some heavy hitters on the PK in Matt Martin and Roman Polak but they will have their hands full with Washington’s high-powered man advantage.
X-Factor for Washington: Evgeny Kuznetsov
He was my x-factor last year and he has to be again this year. Kuznetsov finished the season with 59 points, good for third on the team. His passing and sneaky shot can be huge for the Capitals’ playoff run. However, it didn’t help them last year. Kuznetsov struggled near the end of 2016 and it followed him to the playoffs where he had just 2 points in 12 games. Unacceptable for a player that finished the year with 70 points. Simply put, Kuznetsov has to be better this postseason. He needs to limit his turnovers and stay out of the penalty box, two issues that I have followed this season. Kuznetsov doesn’t have to score every goal for Washington but he has to make his presence known. Don’t forget, he’s in a contract year and nothing will lose you money more than disappearing on the big stage.
X-Factor for Toronto: Frederik Andersen
Andersen’s importance to Toronto in this series is monumental. Toronto may be blessed with youth and speed but Washington has both in spades plus playoff experience. The Capitals could put Toronto on their heels for most of this series and that is where Andersen will have to shine through. He will basically have to stand on his head for the Leafs to have a chance to upset Washington. At 6’4, 230 lbs., Andersen can stand strong when he has to make saves down low. Washington will have to attack him up high but they have the skill to score on any shot. Andersen’s performance will be key for the Leafs to avoid a quick first round exit.
Keep Your Eye Out For: Washington’s Bottom Six
While Washington has a lethal top six lineup, it is the bottom six that fans should watch out for. The third line (Andre Burakovksy, Lars Eller, Brett Connolly) has been one of the most consistent lines for the team this season. It’s a perfect line comprised of speed, grit, and playmaking. Connolly can grind in front of the net, Burakovsky can set up plays, and Eller can win battles on the boards and is hard to knock off the puck. The fourth line is just as impressive. Daniel Winnik, Jay Beagle, and Tom Wilson may be the best fourth line in the league. They can hurt you both on defense and offense. If both lines can keep up their level of consistent play, Toronto will be in grave trouble.
This will be an intriguing series between two offensively talented teams. Toronto will have speed to throw at Washington but they will have to keep it going nonstop to stand a chance against the best team in the NHL. Washington boasts talent and depth at every position and it will ultimately be too much for the Leafs to overcome.
Prediction: Washington in 5