It’s not that the Capitals didn’t want to win every game this postseason and cruise to a Stanley Cup championship in just 16 games. They were just realistic that games would probably be lost along the way.
“Not going to win them all,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “You don’t want it to be easy. It’s one of the beautiful things about playoffs, how hard it is.”
The expectation was that the Capitals, the league’s best team in the regular season, 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. “It’s a team that had a really, really good record the second half of the season and have four really good lines. For a young team, they’re pretty deep. I don’t think there’s anything too surprising to be honest with you. I think we had a lot of respect for them coming in.”
So as the Capitals returned to a losing locker room Saturday night after a 4-3 double-overtime defeat to the Toronto Maple Leafs, they were disappointed but still confident with the series now shifting back to Toronto for the next two games.
“We expect a long series against Toronto,” forward Justin Williams said. “And we’ll battle as long as we have to.”
Rather than fret about this series suddenly being tied and if that’s ominous for Washington, let’s instead examine some reasons this series is tied and how the Capitals can regain the lead.
“I think everybody goes into a series hoping they win every game, but the reality of it is it’s going to be a long series no matter who you play,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “And if you play really well and you get a couple breaks and you execute and you’re playing well as a team, you may take out a team a little earlier. But most of the series, you look around, they’re always anywhere from a six- to seven-game series, a lot of them. I think we came into the series from a feeling-out process. They won a game in our building, so the series is on. It’s on.”
The Capitals aren’t scoring enough at five-on-five
Washington has now been outscored at even strength in this series, 5-3. The Capitals’ potent power play has chipped in three goals, but calls are harder to come by in the playoffs, and Washington knows it can’t count on getting them. The Maple Leafs are well-coached by Mike Babcock and will make adjustments to limit Washington’s man-advantage as the series goes on, so the Capitals need to find a way to start beating goaltender Frederik Andersen more at even strength.
Washington has had plenty of chances, combining for 94 shots on goal in the two games, both of which went to extra periods. Trotz counted “four, five absolute outstanding chances to win the game in overtime where we were standing in the slot and we just couldn’t finish.” He wants to see the Capitals get even more pucks on net and be less picky and more vigilant about establishing a net-front presence.
“Anytime the puck’s in a position that you have the ability to score, don’t cheat yourself and look for a better play,” Trotz said. “The best play sometimes in the playoffs is to get on net quickly and drive toward the blue paint and let’s not get too cute around the net. I think you get a chance or an opportunity, you’ve got to bury them. … We had some good opportunities where we had some good plays off the rush, made some good plays in the offensive zone, we pounded some pucks in the blue paint, but we can do more of it.”
Lineup changes could be coming
On a conference call Sunday with reporters, Trotz hinted at possible lineup tweaks coming now that Washington will be the road team for the next two games and Babcock will have more control of matchups with the last change. The Capitals likely are considering changes, but their current configuration helped win so many games during the regular season.
But if there are changes, it could involve splitting Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Trotz mentioned that Babcock will likely want center Nazem Kadri matched against Backstrom in Toronto, and there have been mixed results with how Backstrom has fared in that matchup. The top line scored the game-tying goal Saturday night, so it’s not that they’ve played poorly, but with center Evgeny Kuznetsov also playing well, having Backstrom and Ovechkin on separate lines could make Babcock’s matchups trickier.
In the regular season, Trotz occasionally went with a top-six forward corps that looked like this:
Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Justin Williams
Marcus Johansson-Nicklas Backstrom-T. J. Oshie
For fans clamoring for speedy defenseman Nate Schmidt to get in the lineup, that isn’t likely. While Brooks Orpik isn’t as fleet of foot as Schmidt, he’s Washington’s most physical blue-liner, and that played a role in Saturday night’s game. He had several big hits on Toronto forward Mitch Marner, and his clean hit on Roman Polak knocked the defenseman out for the series. It wasn’t Orpik’s intention to hurt anyone, but an already depleted Maple Leafs defense losing another member favors the Capitals going forward.
Speaking of which …
The Capitals should continue to be physical
Washington put 55 hits on the Maple Leafs in Saturday night’s game. The more the Capitals continue to do that, the more it could wear on Toronto as the series goes on. The Maple Leafs have the edge in speed, but the Capitals are bigger, and if they play what Trotz refers to as a “heavy” game, then those speedy Toronto players might get tentative with the puck because they know a big hit is waiting for them. With three Maple Leafs defensemen playing more than 35 minutes Saturday night, exhausting Toronto with physical play in Game 3 becomes especially important.
“This series is about wearing people down and I think we’re fine that way,” Trotz said. “We need to sort of pound the rock, if you will, and see if we can wear people down. Their D got extended pretty hard last night in a lot of areas. Those 40-plus minutes, those are hard to recover from.”
Washington has been getting crushed in the faceoff circle
After the Capitals’ double-overtime loss Saturday night, Trotz mentioned how the team has been “chasing” throughout the series. Washington has had the lead for less than four minutes total in the past two games, which is something the Capitals will need to fix, but the team was also chasing because it was consistently starting without the puck in Game 2.
In Game 1, Toronto won 54 percent of the faceoffs. The importance of a slight disparity like that can be debated, but the Maple Leafs’ 61 percent edge in a game that lasted more than 90 minutes took a toll on the Capitals on Saturday night, especially as they were attempting to rally from a deficit for most of the game.