- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 16, 2017

Late Saturday night, after two overtime periods of reach-for-your-heart-pills tension, Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz warned that his team’s series with the Toronto Maple Leafs may just be getting started.

“There may be another five to go in this series,” Trotz said.

This series was not expected to need seven games to be decided and, ultimately, it may not. After splitting the first two games in Washington, both of which went to overtime, the Capitals head to Toronto in a surprisingly tight series. They have lost home ice to the precocious Maple Leafs who have proven themselves unwilling to play little brother to the veteran Capitals.

“We’ve been chasing this series a little bit,” Trotz said. “It’s been a little bit of an uphill battle.”

The 55-win Capitals have indeed been chasing the 40-win Leafs around the Verizon Center through Games 1 and 2. Washington won Game 1 on Tom Wilson’s overtime goal Thursday and Toronto pulled even on Kasperi Kapanen’s game-winner in double overtime Saturday, but the Capitals have played from behind in both games and have been outscored 5-3 at even strength.

To get home ice back in their favor, the Capitals will need to win at least one game in Toronto, a hockey-mad city that hasn’t hosted a playoff game in three years.

“I’m sure [Toronto will be] pretty revved up,” Brooks Orpik said. “They haven’t had a playoff game in a while. I was watching the game where they played Pittsburgh there when they clinched and that was probably a good little taste of what it would be like. We got an experienced team in here. We know what it’s like to play on the road in the playoffs. You got to focus on what you can do and play the system that we’re supposed to. You can’t make mistakes there and give them extra chances to generate energy with the crowd.”

The series is still young, and the Capitals are not panicked. Washington’s locker room was all-business Saturday night, with players acknowledging that they need to be more aggressive around the net and to take fewer penalties while remaining confident. Justin Williams, Mr. Game 7 as he is known, said he wasn’t discouraged in the slightest.

“I’m going to go home, have some water, I’m going to sleep, then I’m going to come back tomorrow and get on the plane and have a Game 3,” Williams explained postgame.

“This is fun,” he went on. “Sitting in here in overtime and knowing that you could be the one to end it, it’s a great feeling. We expect a long series against Toronto. The battle is one that we ask for.”

Goaltender Braden Holtby felt similarly.

“It’s one of the beautiful things about playoffs is how hard it is,” Holtby said. “Now we go to Toronto with the mindset that we can play a hard, road, gritty style of game.”

Over the course of a long series, the Capitals might be able to wear the Leafs down, particularly on defense. Toronto defenseman Roman Polak went down with a gruesome knee injury after a hit from Brooks Orpik Saturday and, after the game, Toronto coach Mike Babcock confirmed that Polak will miss the remainder of the playoffs, no matter how long they last for his team.

Defenseman Nikita Zaitsev, who has yet to touch playoff ice after suffering an upper-body injury in Toronto’s final regular season game, skated Saturday and Sunday and could be ready to play Game 3 on Monday. Zaitsev would replace Polak in Toronto’s lineup but even with him defensive depth would remain a problem.

“This series is about wearing people down and I think we’re fine that way,” Trotz said Sunday on a conference call. “We need to sort of pound the rock, if you will and see if we can wear people down. Their D got extended pretty hard last night in a lot of areas. Those 40-plus minutes, those are hard to recover from.”

Two defenders, Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, played more than 40 minutes Saturday night for Toronto. No Capital played more than defenseman Matt Niskanen’s 33:56.

The Capitals may stay the course if their goal is simply to keep grinding Toronto until they find some give, but Trotz said there’s a chance he will alter his lineup for Monday’s game.

“Maybe we may tweak something. Yeah, we might do that,” Trotz said Sunday.

He also might not and, though Toronto has been unexpectedly feisty through two games, there’s no obvious sign that Trotz would need to. The Capitals were expected to control this series from start to finish and impose their will against the Maple Leafs, though, so even the possibility of Washington switching things up says something.

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