In the Maple Leafs, their first-round Stanley Cup Playoff opponents, the Capitals see a bit of their past selves.
Led by center Auston Matthews, the rookie with the most goals since Alex Ovechkin, Toronto will bring scoring, speed, and inexperience to Verizon Center Thursday, a bit like the Capitals did back in 2007-08, the first year in the Ovechkin era in which they made the playoffs.
“Yeah,” center Nicklas Backstrom, who was taken in the first round of the 2006 draft, two years after the Capitals selected Ovechkin, said. “A little bit. Obviously they have a young and talented team and we all know that about the Leafs do too, so. They’re a fast team. It’s a great matchup for us and a great challenge for us in the first round there so it’ll be a battle.”
The Leafs have had a top-10 draft pick in each of the last three years, selecting center Mitch Marner fourth overall in the 2015 draft and center William Nylander eighth overall the year before that. Things didn’t come together until this year with Matthews, the first overall pick in the 2016 entry draft, who has scored 40 goals and is a Calder Trophy shoe-in as the league’s best rookie.
“He play in a high level, obviously. Him, [Patrik] Laine, all those different guys, they play well. It’s fun to watch,” Ovechkin said.
(Ovechkin, by the way, scored 52 goals in his first season, 2005-06.)
All that talent is plenty good enough to excite, but young teams often flame out in the postseason. In 2008, Capitals lost in seven to the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round. What memories or lessons does Ovechkin hold from those days?
“It was long time ago,” Ovechkin said. “I can’t remember.”
Toronto’s youth movement may not have mastered such tricks yet, and the simple ability to deflect a question can help a player maintain focus when everything goes haywire in the postseason.
“Obviously, playoff experience is on their side for sure,” Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said Tuesday. “I like the youthful enthusiasm we have, I like how quick we can play, but we’re going to have to play quick and do the right things. Our intent is to get prepared over the next couple days, enjoy the process and go into Washington and be prepared to win.”
The Capitals will have the greatest advantage against Toronto’s defense. Washington was the stingiest group in the NHL, allowing only 2.22 goals per game during the regular season, while Toronto let in 2.95. The teams are more evenly matched on offense, with Washington still owning the edge with 3.21 goals per game to Toronto’s 3.06.
For the most part, the Leafs high-scoring offense runs on speed, which the Capitals can counter with their strong puck-possession game.
“It’s not any different than any other skill player or speedy players,” Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “All the old clichés: time and space, be hard on them. I think the big thing with them is don’t give them any freebies. I think if we can eliminate our turnovers and keep the puck heading north, that benefits us.”
Those things helped the Capitals to a 2-1 regular-season record against Toronto, with one win coming in overtime. Another lesson from those games was to wear the Leafs down physically, according to Backstrom.
“We have to stay on their Ds and make sure we play physical because that’s why we won that game, I think. We stay on top of our D and we stay aggressive, I think, that’s what we got to do against a team like that,” Backstrom said.
As far as special teams play, the Capitals were fourth on the power play and seventh on the penalty kill during the regular season, while the Leafs ranked second and 10th in those categories, respectively.
If the Maple Leafs have an advantage anywhere it’s either in Babcock, a potential Jack Adams Award-winner for coaching his young upstarts into a surprising playoff berth, or in the fact that they don’t face the same weighty expectations that are falling on the Capitals. The latter factor only goes so far, though, because, as they say, it’s the cup.
“They’re a team that they’ll talk about that they’ll have nothing to lose when in fact, everybody does. It’s a playoff series, it’s experience, it’s something that we relish as players, and this is a fun time of year,” Capitals right winger Justin Williams said.
Adrenaline and youthful energy are one thing at the start of a series, but if a team gets backed into a corner, experience often triumphs.
“You’re so pumped up,” Backstrom said, recalling his first playoffs. “But it’s kind of like both, nervous and pumped up, so it’s going to be a great feeling for them I think.”
That great feeling probably won’t last forever, as the Maple Leafs are up against a superior team in the Capitals on both sides of the ice, but particularly defensively. Give them a few years, though. After all, the Capitals have been at this a while and still haven’t found what they’re looking for.