Here is how the series, now led 2-1 by the Maple Leafs, looks after Game 3.
Matthews and Co. finally break through
The Capitals weren’t going to keep Auston Matthews and the Maple Leafs’ first line down for the entire series.
Matthews’s first-period goal Monday was not a reason to sound any alarms, but then William Nylander scored off a pass from Matthews in the second period to knot the score at 3. That play was started by Zach Hyman, the third member of the line, and signaled the much-anticipated arrival of this young group to the series.
Matthews’s line was held scoreless through the first two games of the series, and he even whiffed on two good scoring opportunities in Game 2. He finished Game 1 with one shot on goal and had just three in the Maple Leafs’ double-overtime win Saturday. This after finishing his rookie season with 40 goals and 29 assists.
Capitals Coach Barry Trotz mostly used Evgeny Kuznetsov (and the second line) to match up with Matthews in Games 1 and 2, and Kuznetsov again drew the responsibility throughout Game 3. Kuznetsov was on the ice for Matthews’s first-period goal. Carlson and Schmidt were pitted against the Maple Leafs’ top line throughout the game, and Trotz also cycled his third and fourth lines onto the ice to face Matthews’s group.
“I don’t think you really want to psyche yourself out,” Matthews said to reporters Monday of whether he was putting pressure on himself to produce. “It’s one of those things, the puck hops over your stick. At this part of the season I don’t think you want to get in your head.”
In the first period, Matthews took a wrist shot that hit off Carlson’s stick, then Schmidt’s head, then was mishandled by Braden Holtby before he tapped the puck into the net. Nylander’s second-period goal wasn’t quite as fluky, and it all had a big influence on the tide of the game.
Capitals’ power play squanders opportunities
The Capitals’ power play delivered one goal in Game 1, two in Game 2 and then fell flat when it had a chance to stretch the lead Monday.
During the second period, Matt Martin got tagged with a double-minor for roughing right as Matt Hunwick was called for hooking Jay Beagle. That gifted the Capitals a five-on-three advantage that they couldn’t convert on. They got a five-on-four advantage later in the period when the Maple Leafs were called for too many men on the ice, and again came up empty.
Both power plays came with the Capitals holding a two-goal advantage, and the Maple Leafs tied the game by the end of the second period. The Capitals ranked third in the NHL in power-play percentage during the regular season (23.1), and it was troubling that it couldn’t make the most of a prime five-on-three opportunity.
The Capitals returned the favor by killing two Maple Leafs man-advantages in the third, but they otherwise put just three shots on goal in the whole period. Then the Maple Leafs netted a power-play goal at the start of overtime, only darkening the stain the Capitals’ power play left on their performance.
Schmidt immediately delivers
That left Nate Schmidt in his place next to John Carlson on Monday night, and Schmidt was a factor immediately. He assisted on the Capitals’ first goal just 2:43 into the contest after chasing down a puck and flicking a perfect pass to Nicklas Backstrom in front of the net. It was the first time the Capitals scored first in the series and their first four-on-four goal of the entire season.
It also illustrated how Schmidt’s speed can affect games. Schmidt became the Capitals’ seventh defenseman after they acquired Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline. He filled in admirably during a Shattenkirk suspension in March and for a Carlson injury during the last three games of the regular season.
That gave the Capitals confidence in their defensive depth going into the playoffs. Then Schmidt was on the ice for the Capitals’ next two goals and helped on the Maple Leafs’ top forwards. Alzner is day-to-day with an upper-body injury and the Capitals have a very productive replacement if that keeps him on the shelf any longer.
“I think this is a good series for me,” Schmidt said Monday afternoon. “They’re playing hard right now with a lot of speed to their game, and if I get in there, it should be a lot of fun.”
On Monday, it was fun right away before a sour end to the night.
Capitals get (but don’t keep) an early advantage
Trotz described his team as “chasing” after Game 2, which could have applied to a few different aspects of the Capitals’ two home performances. The most obvious is that they had not started with a lead — a trend that was obliterated in the first five minutes of Game 3.
Backstrom’s score was immediately followed by a whistling slap-shot goal from Alex Ovechkin. It was Ovechkin’s second of the playoffs (first at even strength) and came with just 4:49 gone. It was as efficient a start as the Capitals could have asked for.
The Capitals led for less than four minutes throughout all of Games 1 and 2. That was in large part because the Maple Leafs grabbed a 1-0 lead in each first period, with Mitch Marner scoring 1:35 into Game 1 and James van Riemsdyk scoring 17:34 into Game 2.
First-period scores from Backstrom and Ovechkin, and a seconed-period goal from Kuznetsov, flipped that script before the Maple Leafs tied the game in the second. That hung the game in the balance until Bozak won it in overtime.
Zaitsev is slow to start in return to ice
The Maple Leafs got a big lift with the return of Nikita Zaitsev on Monday, which was only two days after losing defenseman Roman Polak to a season-ending lower-body injury.
The 25-year-old Zaitsev missed Games 1 and 2 with an upper-body injury and made his NHL playoff debut in Game 3. But it was an unceremonious start, as he was on the ice for both of the Capitals’ first-period goals. The Maple Leafs defensive depth will be tested throughout the rest of this series, as it almost was when Martin Marincin (who was originally replacing Zaitsev and is now in the lineup for Polak) was slow to the bench during the second period.
And, later in the game, an apparent Marincin injury again left the Maple Leafs with five healthy defensemen.
Schmidt came out of the gate as the picture of defensive depth. The Maple Leafs were not offered that assurance so quickly.
That said, Brooks Orpik and Kevin Shattenkirk have now been on the ice for four five-on-five goals in the series. They were on for both of the Maple Leafs’ second-period goals, the first from Nazem Kadri and the second from Nylander.
Orpik and Shattenkirk have tried to assert themselves physically throughout the series. But the Maple Leafs speed has been a lot for them to handle at times, which again evident in Game 3.