Nicklas Backstrom has been in the playoffs enough times to know the importance of starting fast. But when the Capitals went down 2-0 midway in the first period, they saw a younger Toronto Maple Leafs team playing freely.
Backstrom, on the other hand, and other players of a Capitals team that earned 118 points in the regular season, admitted being nervous before rallying back to a 3-2 overtime win.
It was nearly a disaster.
“We shouldn’t be, but maybe I was a little nervous and pressured,” Backstrom said. “I don’t know. We want to be good and all those kids want to do good. I don’t know sometimes we lock ourselves up and we’re passive instead of being aggressive.”
Turnovers, particularly in their own zone, and second and third chances for Toronto nearly doomed the Capitals. Mitchell Marner, who is 19, found a loose puck and capitalized just 1:35 into the game to put the Maple Leafs ahead.
It quickly became worse when eight minutes later, Toronto forward Jake Gardiner scored an unassisted goal after getting control of the puck surrounded by various Capital defenders.
Capitals defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who was acquired from St. Louis at the trade deadline, was on the ice for both Toronto goals. He said “there’s always some nervousness when you come into a game like this.”
“It’s only human,” said Shattenkirk, who had a game-high nine shots on goal. “But I think the problem we had, and obviously I’m a victim of it too, was just not moving your feet and not skating through it. They came out fast. You have to give them credit. Really they were just throwing pucks to the net.
“We didn’t do a good job of taking (second and third chances) away,” he added.
It wasn’t all terrible as the Capitals settled in. They took advantage of a critical 5-on-3 power play in the first period that led to a 5-on-4 goal. That cut Toronto’s lead to one before the first period ended.
Shattenkirk said that the Capitals got the puck into the zone more often and he credited the forwards for getting the puck back to the defensemen so they could shoot. The Maple Leafs held the advantage in shots on goal for most of the game until the third period.
“It’s simple things, but they all add up,” Shattenkirk said.
The Capitals finished the game with a 44-37 edge in shots on goal.
Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby was asked if experience from other playoff situations was a factor in the comeback following the nervous start.
“It pays off if you use it in the right way,” said Holtby, who had 35 saves. “We believe in ourselves and our 60-minute game, and I think that was a big thing. … It showed maturity throughout the game, but we also know that we might not get away with it in the future.”
The Capitals will search for a solution to avoid a slow start for the rest of the series.
“To me, it’s a really good wake up call to us,” coach Barry Trotz said. “You get in the playoffs, there is no easy games.”