NHL First Round Playoff Preview: Washington Capitals vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

Scott Maxwell
April 13 2017 10:16AM

Here ye, here ye, let me tell you the tale of David and Goliath. In the words of the ancient prophet who hails from Toronto, Drake, the Toronto Maple Leafs "started from the bottom, now we here". The Maple Leafs finished in last place, and despite upgrading their goaltending and goal scoring, with those being their biggest problems in their last place finish, many still picked the Leafs to finish bottom five. However, they proved everyone wrong (except Jeff Veillette), on route to their best season in the cap era, thanks to young rookies Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander.

Meanwhile, the Washington Capitals had another Goliath season, with their second consecutive Presidents trophy. And as if the team wasn't good enough, they added Kevin Shattenkirk at the deadline to an already stacked team. They had a slight bump after that, but are red hot going into the post season to face the inexperienced Maple Leafs.

SEASON SERIES

The Leafs and Caps met three times this season, with the Leafs taking the first one, and the Caps winning the other two. However, it's really hard to look at these and give them any worth, due to the Capitals being on the second half of a back to back the first game, the Capitals backup starting the second game, and the Leafs backup starting the third game, while also playing on the second half of a back to back. The schedule has rarely benefited both teams in their matchups.

The first game saw the Leafs take an early 3-0 lead, and after a couple attempts to draw within two, the Leafs would finish with the 4-2 victory. Despite the 3-0 lead, the Caps and Leafs were tied in shot attempts 49-49. The second game came shortly after New Years, where a back and forth first and second would see the Leafs take a 4-2 lead. The Caps would tie it twice, and win the game 6-5 in overtime thanks to Ovechkin. Despite the close affair, the Caps dominated the shot attempts with a 46-31 advantage. Finally, just over a week ago, the Caps dominated the Leafs, winning 4-1, with the Leafs only goal coming with a bit over a minute left. It was a close affair in the shot attempts battle, with the Caps leading 46-44.

The takeaway: it seemed like no matter the situation, the underlying numbers were either tied, or with the advantage of the Caps. None of these games really have any meaning, but there are some things to look at.

WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY

Washington: 61.38% 5v5 GF%, 51.81% CF%, 51.46% 5v5 FF%, 9.17% Sh%, 93.73% Sv%, 23.1% PP%, 83.8%

Toronto: 51.21% 5v5 GF%, 50.4% 5v5 CF%, 49.78% 5v5 FF%, 8.33% Sh%, 92.29% Sv%, 23.8% PP%, 82.5% PK%

As you can see, we seem to have a situation of "whatever you can do, I can do better". Whether it's goals, corsi, fenwick, shooting and save percentage, or penalty kill, the Caps have the Leafs beat. The Leafs lone advantage is the power play, but even then, we'll have to see if they'll be able to draw from this.

A positive from this for Leafs fans: while the Caps seem to have you beat, just about everything is close enough where it might not be overwhelmingly impactful. So, like, the Leafs might get swept, but it'll all be one goal games, like the 2015 Ducks-Jets, except instead of Leafs fans getting the third star in game four, it'll be the platinum seat ghosts instead.

The Capitals biggest strength is, um, well, everything. Seriously, you name it, they got it. Elite scorers? Washington wants you to meet Backstrom, Ovechkin, and Kuznetsov. Overperforming secondary scorers? Say hi to Johansson, Oshie, Williams. A deep blue line? Introducing Carlson, Niskanen, Alzner, and Orlov. Did I forget someone? Oh yeah, that Shattenkirk guy that they got at the deadline, he's alright too. Elite goaltender? Braden Holtby everyone. And everyone is a solid two way player too. Only Alzner and Beagle sit below a 50% CF%, and even then, it's 48.98% and 48.81%. The Caps have several ways that they can beat you, and if one doesn't work, they'll just use another way. They're a deep team that only a few teams can rival (and no, it's not the damn Blackhawks).

As for the Leafs, they're team is, as I like to put it, Pittsburgh Penguins-lite. They use their forward depth of Matthews, Nylander, Marner, Kadri, van Riemsdyk, and Bozak, spread it out over three lines, and toss in some complimentary pieces in Brown, Komarov, and Hyman. It's no Sid, Geno, and Phil, but it gets the job done. Toss in a fourth line that everyone hated for 60 games until they got Brian Boyle, and now everything is fine, especially with the recent addition of Kapanen, who despite only a goal to his name, is a scoring threat. On the back end, like Pittsburgh, they rely on a couple key cogs, in this case Rielly and Gardiner, and then surround them with 4/5 defensemen. Or at least they could, but they put Hunwick and Polak in instead. In net, they have Andersen, who has either been really good or really bad, and has seen a workload he's never faced before, so he might not last long. That is, unless he's still hurt, then it's McElhinney, which if that's the case, Caps in 3 games.

If there's one thing that Toronto has matched up with Washington, it's their center depth. Caps have Backstrom, Leafs have Matthews. Caps have Kuznetsov, Leafs have Kadri. Caps have Eller, Leafs have Bozak. Caps have Beagle, Leafs have Boyle. Center depth always seems to be one of the strong points of successful playoff teams, so this could be a key for the Leafs if they want to pull off the upset.

WHY YOU SHOULD CHEER FOR THE CAPITALS?

I mean, if you're a fan of Goliath beating the crap out of David, go right ahead.

Ok, I won't make you feel THAT bad. If you have to find some way to cheer for the Caps, cheer for Ovi finally getting rid of this "choker" reputation, and finally getting his Cup.

Also, I don't think I've met a terrible Caps fans, so go those guys. Way better than us Leafs fans. Apparently, we're unbearable, and this is after an average season. Can't wait until the Leafs are #actuallygood, and we actually try to be insufferable. You guys haven't seen anything yet.

WHY YOU SHOULD CHEER FOR THE LEAFS?

Non-Leafs fans don't read this





Leafs fans, hello

Buds all day


Now, for non-Leafs fans, you should cheer for the Leafs if you like seeing the underdogs win. Also, you'd never stress because you know they won't win, even if the Leafs have a 3-0 series lead and blow it. They'll still lose!

Also, just admit it. You want to see hockey Twitter burn, don't you. Well, join the dark side, and watch the flames ensue. And no, I'm not encouraging you to cheer for the Flames.

SCHEDULE

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PREDICTION

Even though I'm a fan of the Maple Leafs, I'm not going to be super biased, so I'm gonna say the Leafs take seven games to beat them.

I'm kidding. In my humble opinion, I think the Capitals take it in six games, which is apparently still generous to the Leafs. I think the Capitals take the first three games, take their foot off the gas, the Leafs win a couple to scare them, and the Capitals finish them off in Toronto. Is that a fair prediction to make? The biggest x-factor for the Leafs will be their defense, especially in the absence of Zaitsev for at least game 1. Although the Caps might be not have Carlson in for game 1 either, so maybe that won't be so important.

Other Previews

New York Rangers vs. Montreal Canadiens 

Boston Bruins vs. Ottawa Senators 

Edmonton Oilers vs. San Jose Sharks 

Minnesota Wild vs. St. Louis Blues

Calgary Flames vs. Anaheim Ducks 

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I'm just a journalist going to school to get the degree. Follow me at @scotmaxw
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