Five of the series’ six games went to overtime. All six games were decided by one goal. But it was Johansson, the Capitals’ quiet, skilled forward, who ultimately tilted the series in the top seed’s favor. Here is how the Capitals ultimately edged the Leafs, and what it says about their upcoming series with a Penguins team that eliminated them in the second round last season.
Holtby wins another goaltender’s duel
A Game 5 goaltender’s battle was followed by another in Game 6, which was uncharacteristic for a series that once hinged on which team could run up the goal total. Holtby again won on Sunday night.
Hotlby was pressured from the opening period, as the Capitals’ inability to win faceoffs and cleanly exit the zone left them playing in their end for long stretches. Holtby had 23 saves midway through the second period, which was just one fewer than he made in the entirety of his one-goal performance in Game 5. Andersen had 15 at that point, and his 16th was a point-blank stop of Justin Williams to keep the game in a scoreless tie. By the end of the second, with the game still knotted 0-0, Holtby had 28 saves, and Andersen had 21.
This followed a Game 5 in which Holtby allowed one goal and made 25 saves, and Andersen allowed two goals while making 28. And that followed both goalies having less-than-stellar starts to the series.
The first crack came when Auston Matthews beat Holtby on an odd play in the third period, sneaking behind the defense and lifting the puck into the top shelf. Then Andersen yielded a goal when Marcus Johansson buried an Evgeny Kuznetsov rebound five minutes later. Neither goalie yielded another in regulation, but one had to break in overtime.
Andersen did on Johansson’s tap-in, and Holtby was left celebrating a critical 37-save, one-goal performance that gives him momentum heading into the next round.
Matthews (and an unlucky bounce) strikes again
Matthews scored 7:45 into the third period, when a Morgan Rielly dump-in caromed off the boards and right onto Matthews’s stick in front of the net. It was another favorable bounce for the Maple Leafs, who benefited from a number of broken plays in this series. It was also Matthews’s fourth goal in as many games, and a continue of his line’s production. Zach Hyman, Matthews and William Nylander have now combined for six goals in the last four games of the series, even after it seemed that Trotz could counter them with defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen.
The Capitals’ top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie were hot heading into Game 6, but were held without a goal thanks in large part to Andersen’s magnificent play.
Oshie came into Sunday with a series-high seven points, Ovechkin scored in Games 2, 3 and 4, and Backstrom had six points (two goals and four assists) in the first five games. They didn’t score Sunday, but their performance over the course of six games is encouraging heading into the Penguins series.
Capitals win despite faceoff struggles
Capitals Coach Barry Trotz described his team as “chasing” through the first two games of the series, and part of that was because they lost a majority of the faceoffs in both Games 1 and 2.
But that steadily changed as the series wore on, winning 52 percent in a Game 3 loss, 52 percent in a Game 4 win and 55 percent in a Game 5 win. Then faceoffs resurfaced as an area of concern in the first period of Game 6, as the Capitals won just eight of the 24 draws in the first 20 minutes. That allowed the Maple Leafs dictate play and finish with 15 shots in the series’ first scoreless first period. That led to the Maple Leafs winning 65 percent of the faceoffs in regulation and 64 percent when the night was done.
And the Maple Leafs’ dominance in the faceoff circle seeped into the second period.
“Starting with the puck or not starting with the puck, chasing or dictating,” Jay Beagle said earlier in the season. “It’s pretty simple: You’ve got to win draws to be able to feel like you’re going to be able to come at them.”
Beagle skates on the fourth line but takes critical faceoffs with other lines because he is the Capitals’ only right-handed center. He won 56.8 percent of the defensive-zone faceoffs he took during the regular season and was a key factor in the Capitals’ turnaround in the faceoff circle this series.
After Game 5, Toronto Coach Mike Babcock tabbed neutral-zone faceoffs as one of the factors that set the Capitals apart. Winning those allowed the Capitals to more regularly push into the Maple Leafs zone, and winning defensive-zone faceoffs helped them keep the Maple Leafs speedy offense skating backward. But the Maple Leafs flipped the faceoff advantage back into their favor in Game 6, leaving the Capitals chasing the puck (again) with the ice tilted in the Maple Leafs’ favor.
Faceoffs were a key part of the Maple Leafs’ winning formula as they took a 2-1 series lead, and they reclaimed that advantage Sunday. The Capitals were able to eke out a win despite their faceoff struggles, but will need to fix that deficiency with a tough second-round matchup upcoming.
Schmidt pulls an Ovechkin
After the Capitals tied the game 1-1 in the third period, Leo Komarov lined up Nate Schmidt behind the Capitals’ net and sent him tumbling to the ice. It looked as if their left legs collided, and Schmidt struggled to get off the ice and to the bench. Then Schmidt, who is already replacing Karl Alzner as he works back from an upper-body injury, limped to the locker room with help from a team staff member.
But Schmidt returned to the game four minutes later, which was a bit less celebrated than Ovechkin’s triumphant return after being knocked out of Game 5. The Schmidt situation (you could call it a Schmidtuation, if you please) fit into a series full of defensive injuries. The Maple Leafs were already without Roman Polak, who was done for the series after taking a big hit from Brooks Orpik in Game 2. They were also without top-pairing defenseman Nikita Zaitsev for Games 1 and 2, and Babcock has regularly used a tight four-defensemen rotation throughout the series.
Schmidt returned to the game, so Trotz didn’t have to do the same, keeping the Capitals’ defensive depth intact moving forward.
Capitals push the Maple Leafs off the cliff
Things got a little dark with Trotz on Saturday when he explained Game 6 in the terms of a metaphorical cliff.
“You get an opportunity to push someone off a cliff, you need to push them off if you can,” Trotz said. “The difference is we’ve got a little bit of wiggle room. They don’t.”
Then Babcock countered and loosely kept with Trotz’s theme.
“When you have someone down and you have a chance to step on him, you step on him. Or they might get up and kill you, you know what I mean?” Babcock said. “I agree with him 100 percent. We’re the same thing. We don’t win, we go home. There should be no more desperate team than us. We’re all aware and understand that fully.”
It was the Capitals who got to nudge the Maple Leafs off the cliff after all, and they didn’t need a Game 7 to do it. The Capitals entered Sunday with a 1-5 record (since 2010) when trying to close out a series in Game 6.
After Game 5, the Canadian Press’s Jonas Siegel spotted Babcock telling Verizon Center staffer that he would see him in a couple days. That promise will now have to wait until next season.
Isabelle Khurshudyan contributed to this report from Toronto.