There was no need for extra periods Wednesday night at Air Canada Centre, as the Capitals pieced together a 5-4 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The victory tied the series at two games and answered a lot of the questions that surfaced in Washington’s back-to-back overtime losses. The game was bookended by goals from T.J. Oshie, who has six points in the playoffs and helped the Capitals avoid another collapse. Tom Wilson provided the secondary scoring that was nonexistent through the first three games. An Auston Matthews goal will show up on the box score, but it was on a broken play and the Capitals may have found a way to slow him and his line down. And hey, Alex Ovechkin even played more than 16 minutes.
The Capitals got on track by tinkering with their bottom-six forwards, cleaning up their zone exits, avoiding the Leafs’ speedy forecheck and stretching a sound effort across 60 minutes. Here is how the series, which is on its way back to Verizon Center on Friday, looks after Game 4.
Wilson (and the Capitals’ new-look third line) delivers in a big way
Wilson — yes, the Toronto native who scored the Capitals’ overtime winner in Game 1 — made Barry Trotz look like the savviest of chess players Wednesday.
After Game 3, Trotz mixed up his bottom-six forwards by swapping Wilson into the third line for Brett Connolly. That put Wilson with center Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky, while Connolly moved to join center Jay Beagle and Daniel Winnik. Through the first three games of the series, the Capitals had just one goal — Wilson’s Game 1 overtime winner — from their third and fourth lines. The Leafs had four goals from their third and fourth lines.
That didn’t last long into Game 4. With the Capitals already leading 2-1 on goals from Ovechkin and Oshie, a Morgan Rielly shot trickled past Braden Holtby and toward the goal. That is when Wilson dove toward the net and flicked the puck away, then raced the length of the ice to deflect in a goal originally credited to Eller.
Tom Wilson saves a goal, Caps go on to score at the other end pic.twitter.com/XTyYEd0nDC
— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) April 19, 2017
Less than three minutes later, Wilson took a pass from Andre Burakovsky on an two-on-one rush and beat Frederik Andersen.
“He’s Tom Wilson,” Trotz said Wednesday morning of what Wilson could bring to the third line. “Everybody knows who Tom Wilson is. That’s what he brings.”
On Wednesday, that meant more playoff heroics that helped the Capitals avoid blowing a 2-0 lead in back-to-back games. The Capitals led 4-1 and were outshooting the Maple Leafs 15-6 after the first period. Eller and Burakovsky possessed the puck well in the series’ first three games, and now Wilson is improbably providing the secondary scoring the Capitals have needed.
Did Tom Wilson just save the season?
— Barry Svrluga (@barrysvrluga) April 19, 2017
Regular-season Tom Wilson: 7 goals.#PlayoffTom: 3 goals in four games
— Isabelle Khurshudyan (@ikhurshudyan) April 19, 2017
An Ovechkin ice-time alert
Ovechkin, if you hadn’t heard, was credited with just 15:08 of ice time in the Capitals’ Game 3 loss Monday. It was the first time since 2012 that the 31-year-old forward played fewer than 16 minutes in a playoff game and was more than four minutes below his season average (which was lowered to preserve him for this very playoff push).
Trotz took the blame for the head-scratching decision, then needed the star forward for 16:31 Wednesday. But it is unlikely that, after a win, a still-lowered ice time will draw too much attention in the coming days.
“Um, I don’t care. I think I play good minutes. Again, right now it’s not about my ice time and what I’m doing right now out there,” Ovechkin told reporters after the Capitals’ morning skate Wednesday. “We’re losing the series. It’s time to take, for you guys, a little bit pressure off us and let us do our job. I think we manage the game well. We have to think about how to score goals and how to get this team to play our way, not their way.”
A big part of the Capitals playing their “way” is having Ovechkin on the ice, evidenced when he scored for the third consecutive game. Ovechkin also continued to free up teammates and set a physical tone on the forecheck and in the neutral zone.
Orlov, Niskanen proves a good matchup for Matthews and the Maple Leafs’ top line
The Maple Leafs’ top line put away two goals in Game 3, but defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen were still able to tilt the ice in the Capitals’ favor when pitted against Matthews, Zach Hyman and William Nylander.
That led Trotz to put that defensive pairing against Matthews’s group whenever he could Wednesday. Orlov and Niskanen’s ability to possess the puck helped limit the Leafs’ top line and patch up a Capitals defense that allowed four goals in both Games 2 and 3.
In Game 3, Maple Leafs Coach Mike Babcock regularly skated his top line against defensemen John Carlson and Nate Schmidt. Schmidt, whose speed makes him a good fit against the Maple Leafs, was again in the lineup for Game 4, as Karl Alzner deals with an undisclosed upper-body injury. In Game 4, it was Trotz who dictated the Matthews-line matchup if Babcock were trying to pit his star rookie against the Carlson-Schmidt pairing.
Through three games, the Maple Leafs’ offensive success was in their ability to counter physicality with speed, find favorable matchups, sloppy zone exits by the Capitals, and spotty play from the Brooks Orpik-Kevin Shattenkirk pairing (which was on the ice for four even-strength goals in the series’ first three games). Orpik and Shattenkirk were also on the ice for Matthews’s fluky third-period goal Wednesday, which came after a clear hit a linesman, stayed in the zone and set Matthews up in front of an out-of-position Braden Holtby.
But none of those issues stained the Capitals’ defensive effort in Game 4. Hyman deflected a goal past a screened Holtby in the first period, but Orlov and Niskanen were otherwise able to quiet a Matthews line that exploded in Game 3. The Capitals’ defense looked a lot less shaky as a result.
Holtby initiates cleaner zone exits
Through the first three games of the series, Toronto’s speed was a hassle for Washington’s defensemen. The Capitals were getting beat in races to soft dump-ins by the Maple Leafs, and Toronto’s forecheck was making for some sloppy breakouts.
“Our cleanliness on our breakouts, getting out on our first try and making sure we’re not turning pucks over at the blue line, I think that’s the biggest part,” Schmidt said Tuesday. “They’re doing a good job of hounding us and hounding our D and making sure that they’re pressuring us into situations that you sometimes don’t want to be in. So, you’ve got to make sure just to be quick and make sure we get out of the zone a little bit faster.”
On the off-day before the game, Holtby met with the Capitals’ blue-liners and suggested playing the puck more to help Washington exit its own zone quicker. That was an effective strategy in Game 4, as Holtby getting the puck in the trapezoid and then moving it forward to a defenseman negated the headaches of Toronto’s speedy forecheck and made for quicker breakouts.
Caps' zone exits are much cleaner so far tonight than they were in first three games of series.
— Tom Gulitti (@TomGulittiNHL) April 20, 2017
Capitals flip the five-on-three script
Two nights after a five-on-three power play shifted the entire momentum of Game 3, another two-man advantage nearly did the same in Game 4.
With the Capitals leading 4-2 at the end of the second period of Game 4, Eller and Orpik went to the box on back-to-back plays. First Eller was called for interference when he covered the puck with his glove after a faceoff. Next Orpik was called for slashing after he smashed Mitch Marner’s stick in half. The Capitals were unable to convert on a second-period five-on-three power play in Game 3, and that led to the Maple Leafs methodically erasing a two-goal lead and eventually winning the game in overtime.
Now the Maple Leafs had their chance in a crucial five-on-three to start the third period. But the Capitals returned the favor by killing the Leafs’ five-on-three advantage with the help of five Holtby saves.
Leafs had four goals 5-on-3 this season, which was second highest in NHL. They've scored a goal every 2.3 minutes in that situation.
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) April 20, 2017
But not this time, and that helped the Capitals keep their lead despite a late push by the Leafs.
Isabelle Khurshudyan contributed reporting.