The Washington Capitals, the best team in the NHL this season, are seeking to win the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Having won a conference championship once (1998) and three Presidents’ Trophies (2010, 2106, 2017), the Cup is the next prize.
2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Round 1: Washington Capitals (1st place, 55-19-8, 118 points) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (wild card 2, 40-27-15, 95 points)
Capitals’ season leaders: Points (Nicklas Backstrom, 86), goals (Alex Ovechkin, 33), assists (Backstrom, 63), plus-minus (Brooks Orpik, 32), goals against average (Philipp Grubauer, 2.04)
Maple Leafs’ season leaders: Points (Auston Matthews, 69), goals (Matthews, 40), assists (Mitch Marner, 42), plus-minus (Jake Gardiner, 24), goals against average (Antoine Bibeau, 1.99)
Regular season series: Capitals 2, Maple Leafs 1
Game 1: at Washington 3, Toronto 2 (OT)
Game 2: Toronto 4, at Washington 3 (2OT)
Game 3: at Toronto 4, Washington 3 (OT)
Game 4: Washington 5, at Toronto 4
Game 5: at Washington 2, Toronto 1 (OT)
Game 6: Washington 2, at Toronto 1 (OT)
>> Marcus Johansson provided the game-tying goal late in the third period and then the game-winner in overtime to clinch the Capitals’ first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs and advance to the second round. They will face their playoff nemesis, Pittsburgh, beginning Thursday night at Verizon.
>> The playoffs aren’t supposed to be easy for the Capitals. And this series wasn’t. So take a minute to appreciate what Washington just did. “Doesn’t get any tighter,” said Justin Williams. “Every game, one goal. Five overtimes? Listen, margin of error is tiny, tiny, tiny.”
>> As Toronto Coach Mike Babcock exited Verizon Center on Friday night, his team on the brink of elimination after a 2-1 overtime loss in Washington, he assured arena staff on his way out that he’d be back for a Game 7: “See you in a couple days.” The Capitals’ response? “We’re ready to go home and say hello to the Verizon guys on Monday as well, just getting ready for series two,” Kevin Shattenkirk said.
>> The Capitals have Toronto on the brink of elimination going into Sunday night’s Game 6, and if the other games in this series are any indication, faceoffs could play a significant role. The Maple Leafs owned the Capitals on draws in the first two games of the series, and in Game 2, Washington won less than 40 percent of the faceoffs in the game. Since then, the Capitals have steadily improved and have won the majority of them. It’s helped Washington feel like it is in more control of the game.
>> All teams want to end every playoff series as soon as possible. For Game 6 against the Maple Leafs on Sunday night in Toronto, the Capitals have a whole mittful of extra reasons they can, they should and they better, writes The Post’s Thomas Boswell. In the past 15 postseasons, only two teams have gone on to win the Stanley Cup after being forced to a Game 7 in the first round. In fact, saving energy, avoiding winner-take-all games and shortening the length of as many series as possible is essential to postseason success.
>> Braden Holtby has a chance to repeat as the Vezina Trophy winner, given to the NHL’s top goaltender in the regular season. The NHL announced Holtby, Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and the Montreal’s Carey Price as the three finalists Saturday. Holtby won the award at the end of last season, Price won it in 2015 and Bobrovsky took it home in 2013. This year’s winner will be announced at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas on June 21.
>> Capitals superstar forward Alex Ovechkin is expected to be “ready to go” for Sunday’s Game 6, Coach Barry Trotz said. Ovechkin had to be helped off the ice after a low hit by Toronto’s Nazem Kadri in the first period on Friday night, and he didn’t put any weight on his left leg as two teammates assisted him to the bench. “I was hoping he’s okay,” Kadri said. NBC Sports analyst Mike Millbury called it a “legitimate hip check.” But the moment with Ovechkin on the ice and no way to know what would come next represented something larger, writes Barry Svrluga. This was, in a perverse way, a reminder of what exactly Ovechkin means not just to these Capitals right now, but what he has meant to hockey in this city.
>> Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner is “improving” in his recovery from an undisclosed upper-body injury, Coach Barry Trotz said on Saturday. Alzner has been skating for the past three days, and on Friday, he participated in the morning skate with his teammates, indicating that he’s nearing a return to the lineup. With Alzner out for the past three games, Nate Schmidt has played, and his speed has been well-suited for this series against the slick-skating Maple Leafs. Schmidt has two assists, and he’s leading the team with a plus-four. It seems unlikely he’d be yanked out of the lineup at this point, so that leaves the Capitals with a tricky decision: Which blue-liner should sit to make room for Alzner?
>> Meanwhile, it didn’t matter to Trotz that forward Tom Wilson has been a playoff hero in this first-round series, scoring three goals, including the overtime winner in Game 1. Trotz lost his patience with the physical, 22-year-old winger on Friday night when he took four penalties, the last of which was an offensive zone high-sticking.
>> “That’s why he’s Justin” has resonance for possibly everyone who watched Game 5, other than the overtime hero himself. In truth, Justin Williams has never been very comfortable talking about all this, which makes some sense. If his playoff pressure spree is actually random — like hitting blackjack seven out of 10 hands, but only when you first recite the middle names of each of your great-aunts — you wouldn’t want to jinx it by talking about it. The ultimate playoff performer and proven winner, a three-time Stanley Cup champion nicknamed “Mr. Game 7” for his clutch production in those nerve-racking moments, Williams is at his best when the pressure is highest.
>> Braden Holtby basically admitted he was struggling heading into Game 5, but then he went out and won the series’ first true goalie battle. In a night full of breath-catching saves, it was Frederik Andersen who finally cracked in overtime. That left Braden Hotlby as the victorious goaltender celebrating in a mob of Capitals players, his one-goal, 24-save performance lifting the team to a Game 5 win. Here are the other key moments from Game 5.
>> Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk‘s Game 4 ice time was a career postseason low. Is he worried? “We won a hockey game, so that’s fine by me. I don’t mind it at all,” he said. Plus an update on Karl Alzner, who is out again for Game 5, and a surprise call-up from Hershey.
>> Once a healthy postseason scratch, Dmitry Orlov is now a trusted member of the Capitals. “Orly looks like a totally different player this year,” said Coach Barry Trotz. “You have to go through it. You’ve almost got to get knocked down, so you can get up, and when you get up, you find yourself in a better place, if you will. You see that in Orly. … He’s earned the right. I couldn’t have said that last year.”
>> Dan Steinberg was intrigued when he saw a fan wearing a Leafs-Caps hybrid jersey, but after careful investigation of the constitutional lawyer being pulled apart by this first-round series, Steinberg has given it a reluctant seal of approval.
>> A trio of Capitals fans stood in a sea of Maple Leaf blue on Wednesday and celebrated Washington’s Game 4 win. Well, a pair of Caps fans and a Flyers fan who hates the Leafs. In any case, Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals noticed their dedication.
>> The Capitals won the TV ratings battle during Wednesday night’s Washington trifecta, but not by a landslide.
>> If it looks as if Braden Holtby is battling the puck at the moment, it’s because he is. Perhaps none of the 14 goals he has allowed over the course of four games of this playoff series against the Maple Leafs is particularly egregious. But with this enthralling series tied at two games apiece heading back to Verizon Center Friday night, one of the Capitals’ obvious strengths — Holtby, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL’s best goalie, and a candidate again this year — has become a bit of a wobbly question mark, writes Barry Svrluga. How did that happen?
>> Braden Holtby is partially to blame for the Capitals’ inability to shut the door on a feisty Toronto squad, especially when dealing with high-danger chances, those that originate in the slot or the crease: His save percentage against these shots has fallen off a cliff, dropping to a career low .771 against Toronto during this series. Perhaps backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer would fare slightly better — his regular-season save percentage on high-danger shots at even strength (.837) was higher than Holtby’s (.822) — but that still wouldn’t improve the Caps’ defense, which has left Holtby out to dry on more than a few occasions during this series.
>> Tom Wilson had dreamed of celebrations at Air Canada Centre just like this one — stick in the air, helmet askew from teammates joyfully mobbing him, a bench of players leaning over and waiting for him to skate by and bump fists. A Toronto native, Wilson had probably once envisioned doing just that in a blue Toronto Maple Leafs jersey, but the Capitals have never been so happy to see him in their road whites. In a bit of light hyperbole, The Post’s Dan Steinberg went so far as to label Wilson’s play “his best shift ever.”
>> Mercifully, there was no need for extra periods in Game 4. The victory also answered a lot of the questions that surfaced in Washington’s back-to-back overtime losses. Here are the best and worst moments from the game.
>> “Right now, he’s making a statement going, ‘You’re not getting my spot back,’ ” Coach Barry Trotz said of Nate Schmidt, who got a second assist in as many games and could have had a goal were it not waved off for goaltender interference. “That’s good on Nate.”
>> Before the Red Sox started their title run in 2004, Bill Simmons wrote about how he wanted the Red Sox to win the World Series not just because he wanted to win a championship, but because it would make the Red Sox a “normal” team. He meant that every time the Sox lost a playoff game before 2004, they couldn’t just lose, they were always “cursed.” And in the hours since the Caps lost to Toronto on Monday night, Eric Fingerhut finally understood what Simmons meant. The Caps can’t just lose anymore — they’re always “chokers.”
>> The local teams took turns congratulating themselves Wednesday for their second-ever triple play, the rare “D.C. sports trifecta.” But it didn’t come without some heart-stopping moments. “They make you work hard for your fun, though, don’t they?” wondered Dan Steinberg.
>> Something appears wrong with these Capitals now that they’ve reached the postseason. The team that won 50 games during the regular season to earn the playoffs’ top seed is suddenly on its heels against the No. 8 seed in the East. Three hockey experts were surveyed as to what they think is the problems are for Washington: Lack of speed, mistakes and matchups. “There’s no other way to say this, but the Leafs are making Washington look slow at times,” Pierre LeBrun said.
>> Alex Ovechkin was credited with just 15:08 of ice time on Monday night, the second lowest in his postseason career. So, why did the team’s captain play so little in a crucial Game 3 on the road? “That’s on me to get him in the ice time,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “ … It wasn’t based on play. I thought Ovi was playing terrific. It’s on me to get him a little more ice time, no question.”
>> There are two camps assessing the Capitals, writes Post columnist Barry Svrluga. One group believes a deficit can be overcome. The other camp says: “Holy $&%@, not again.” Whichever camp you call in, one thing is certain: The Capitals are not normal participants in playoff hockey. They have their history, and it colors every tense situation.
>> The Capitals now face a crossroads between champions and chokers, writes Post columnist Thomas Boswell. All year the Caps have yammered about how they want to win a Stanley Cup and that, without a doubt, they have the team character, depth of talent and lack of weaknesses to grab that Cup. Now they need to prove it.
>> If you’re a Capitals fan who feels like you’ve seen this horror film too many times before, well, that’s because you have, at least relative to fans of other NHL teams. Since Alex Ovechkin made his postseason debut in 2007-08, the Capitals have lost 17 of their 87 playoff games in overtime, which is more than any other team during that span.
>> Make no mistake: The Maple Leafs shattered the Capitals in Game 3 — with Auston Matthews and Co. finally breaking through — but Washington also hurt itself, squandering power play opportunities and a pair of two-goal leads. Here’s how things look from here.
>> It’s surprising to see a wild-card team get the series lead against the NHL’s best team from the regular season, but there’s a pretty clear cause for Washington’s deficit in the series. Through three games, the Capitals have done a very poor job of limiting Toronto’s scoring chances, especially from the high-dangers areas like the slot and near the crease. That is a huge change from the regular season and one that is helping an already potent Maple Leafs offense look even more deadly.
>> “I think the way this is being coached by Mike Babcock right now, I’d say Mike Babcock is running the Capitals’ show right now, he’s changing their players when you look at what’s going on with the line deployments,” said Comcast SportsNet analyst Alan May. “Alexander Ovechkin only had 15 minutes last night. I thought Alexander Ovechkin was flying, and he needed to be on the ice with [T.J.] Oshie and [Nicklas] Backstrom a lot more five-on-five.”
>> For a Washington team that has been defined by its early postseason exits, how does it defend against that doubt creeping in now, a top seed trailing the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card team with the next game on the road? “Until we change the narrative, that’s going to be the question,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “It’s up to us to change it. You can’t talk about it. You just have to go and do it.”
>> It might not have felt like it, but Game 3 did have some good moments. One was absolutely incredible: Braden Holtby charging out of goal to make a mind-boggling, diving save. Catch up with all the highlights and, yes, lowlights with our best and worst analysis.
>> Welcome home, kid. Welcome home. “It’s convenient,” said Tom Wilson’s father. That’s about the best you can say about this situation, one in which a kid who grew up playing at a rink five miles north of Air Canada Centre is trying to beat his hometown team in that very building in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
>> “Can we talk people off the ledge?” host Jill Sorenson asked early in Comcast SportsNet’s Caps postgame show Monday night. Uh, good luck with that …
>> On a lighter note, have you ever wondered why they’re called the Toronto Maple Leafs and not Maple Leaves? Yeah? Well, don’t worry: We asked around on your behalf.
>> The expectation was that the Capitals would have an easy time against the Toronto Maple Leafs, who didn’t clinch their postseason berth until the second-to-last game. But to Washington’s credit, it never underestimated the young, feisty Maple Leafs. “I think it’s exactly what we thought it would be coming in,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
>> A decade ago, before a trip to Washington carried all kinds of stakes and expectations, the empty, untouched ice made William Nylander feel like a professional hockey player. He was 11 years old then and his father, Michael Nylander, played for the Capitals. “You see those guys doing it. You look up to them, and you think they are so cool,” William Nylander said. “It made me want to get there, and it also made me think it was possible.” That ambition eventually led Nylander to the Maple Leafs, the team now pushing the top-seeded Capitals in the first round.
>> As mentioned above, the Caps have been living dangerously. It caught up with them in a major way in Game 2 as their bad habits caught up to them. Barry Svrluga takes a look at Washington getting a stiffer test than they bargained for.
>> If you want to relive Game 2, or just reminisce on all there was to like — and dislike — about how the double overtime thriller went down, have a look at our best-worst analysis, where everything from the best marketing ploy to the worst agita to the best (legal) hit can be found.
>> Or maybe you need a distraction from the action on the ice? This Toronto super fan — who paints his face with a maple leaf, and shaves the Stanley Cup into the top of the head, and shaves “GO LEAFS” into the back of his head, and dyes both that hair and the hair on his chin different shades of blue — will do nicely.
>> By the time the Caps won in overtime on a top-shelf shot barely under the crossbar by their least likely sniping threat, Tom Wilson, The Post’s Tom Boswell muttered to himself, “Am I really ready for this?” It’s doubtful that he is, and it’s unlikely that many Washingtonians have any idea what we are all in for.
>> With the Capitals down early in Game 1, Justin Williams was at his best. He scored a goal on the power play by positioning himself in front of the net and staying there until he could tap in a pass from Oshie. When young Toronto defenseman Connor Carrick, a former Capitals prospect, took on the role of agitator early in the game, Williams called his bluff and shook off a glove as a challenge to fight. He sees this as his best chance to win another ring — despite that free agency looms.
>> Dave Strader has spent nine months undergoing treatment for bile duct cancer, and his battle is ongoing. After joining the Dallas Stars’ broadcast team at the start of last season, he was able to call only five games this year. But a break in treatment freed him up for the start of the playoffs, where he called the Capitals’ 3-2 overtime win on Thursday night.
>>“I’ll always have a lineage there, I mean the team that drafted me and gave me my first chance,” Maple Leafs defenseman Connor Carrick said of Washington, which traded him in the Brooks Laich deal. “I have a fondness for that, but the joke is, ‘They didn’t want you either.’ So that’s how it works.” Carrick is trying to join players such as Filip Forsberg and Cody Eakin as former Capitals who have come back to haunt their old team.
>> The Post’s Dan Steinberg argues that the Capitals actually deserve to win the Stanley Cup this year: “There’s not much more you can say about the most complete Capitals team we’ve ever seen. They had the most points in the NHL this season, the best goal differential, the fewest goals allowed, the most wins at home. They had the best goal differential in the first period, and the best goal differential in the third period. They had 59 points in their first 41 games, and 59 points in their last 41 games. They were the best hockey team out there, and it wasn’t that close.”
>> We all know the decade-long narrative for the Capitals: They’re a talented team that can’t get past the second round. Why is this year different? Here are five reasons to be optimistic about the team’s Stanley Cup chances, and because this is the Capitals, the five reasons to be pessimistic.
>> Meanwhile, Fancy Stats’ Neil Greenberg makes the case that, despite their reputation, the Capitals aren’t chokers in the playoffs: “The tendency is to set postseason expectations based on regular season performance, but history shows this to be a bit unfair. For example, only eight of the last 31 Presidents’ Trophy winners — awarded to the team with the best overall record during the regular season — have won the Stanley Cup. Just three others made the Stanley Cup Finals. In the NBA, by comparison, the team with the most wins has gone on to win a title 14 times in that same span, with two others making the NBA Finals.”
>> To that end … Like last season, the Capitals are opening the playoffs with home-ice advantage guaranteed throughout the postseason after posting the league’s best regular-season record. But if you ask players, the team is entering its first-round matchup in a completely different place than it was a year ago.
>> “I think this is the time for the Washington Capitals.” So says NBC analyst Eddie Olczyk, who is far from alone in his prediction. As for the Capitals’ Kevin Shattenkirk, he urges nervous fans to let go of the past and think happy thoughts: “I think not worrying about what happened in the past, it’s hard to do, but you need to push it out of your mind.”
>> Five years ago, goaltender Braden Holtby was a quirky curiosity who hadn’t yet endured the most discouraging developments of a young career. Entering these playoffs, Holtby is nothing short of a franchise backbone, a reason to have confidence rather than questions. There’s no overstating the importance of that development, writes Barry Svrluga.
>> How Evgeny Kuznetsov carries himself this postseason could determine how far the Capitals advance. Their superstar core of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom has never made it past the second round of the playoffs despite repeated regular season success. But it’s Kuznetsov’s play that seems to correlate most with how Washington performs.
>> The third line could also have a major bearing on whether this ends up a happy or hollow spring. Brett Connolly candidly acknowledged that he and Lars Eller were acquired for secondary scoring and that the trio, which also includes Andre Burakovsky, was essentially assembled for the Capitals’ Stanley Cup push.
>> The list of similarities between the Capitals and their first-round postseason adversary is short — Toronto is the youthful upstart team and Washington is the veteran one familiar with this stage. But nine years ago, the Capitals were in the same position as these Maple Leafs, a young core making the playoffs for the first time.
>> Goalie Braden Holtby is a fashion maven whose wardrobe reflects his unique taste. Says former teammate Joel Ward: “It’s a bit of everything, which I think reflects him. It’s like New York meets Montana meets California.”