NHL Playoffs: Can Upstart Leafs Shock Surging Caps?

Apr 8, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs forward Tyler Bozak (center) celebrates his goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the second period at the Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 8, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs forward Tyler Bozak (center) celebrates his goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the second period at the Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports /

The Leafs may be severe underdogs heading into their first round series against the Washington Capitals, but this is the NHL Playoffs, and stranger things have happened.

On Sunday night the Leafs blew a 2-0 lead against the Columbus Blue Jackets, and the hopes of another Battle of Ontario in round one of the NHL playoffs went swirling down the drain. Instead, each Leafs player woke up on Monday morning to the realization they would have to fly to Washington, to face the juggernaut Capitals starting on Thursday evening.

In their three match-ups during the regular season, the Leafs managed to hold their own going 1-1-1 against Washington. In one of those bouts they even chased Braden Holtby from the net, proving the Leafs’ ability to score is a legitimate threat to any team in this league, even the President Trophy-winning Capitals.

If we look at the rosters of these two clubs on paper, it’s quickly evident the Leafs might be in trouble. From a pure roster perspective, It’s difficult to name a better team in the entire NHL than the Washington capitals.

Their forward group is impeccable, led obviously by Alex Ovechkin. Their defence is deep with exceptional talent spread throughout their top six, and recently bolstered by the deadline addition of Kevin Shattenkirk.

Lastly, Holtby is widely regarded as one of the true elite goaltenders in the NHL. Folks, they have no weaknesses, but hockey is not played on paper.

When these teams step on the ice, I believe the Leafs will actually hold the slight edge down the middle. Who would have thought that a year ago? With Auston Matthews, Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri and Brian Boyle, I think the Leafs hold an advantage at center over the Capitals’ Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Lars Eller and Jay Beagle.

Overall, the Leafs hold a slight edge in point production at the centre position outscoring the Caps 210 to 200, even with the high-end production of Backstrom and Kuznetzov. I believe the Leafs are deeper here, and this minuscule advantage down the middle better pay dividends for them, because it’s the only plausible advantage they have positionally.

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Up and down both wings the Capitals hold an advantage, but perhaps the most staggering advantage is at the defence position. The Leafs enter the post season with Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak as question marks to start Game 1. Apart from this, their inexperienced back end doesn’t hold up against the likes of Shattenkirk, John Carlson, Dmitri Orlov, Karl Alzner, and so on.

The high-powered Capitals are still considered an offensive force by many, but what few realize is they allowed the fewest goals in the NHL this year. They sport an outrageously deep blue line.

When you begin to compare season statistics for both teams, the Leafs appear more competitive than one might think. The special teams battle in this series could make or break it for both teams.

According to NHL.com, the Leafs actually hold an edge in power play efficiency, 23.8 percent to 23.1 percent, while the Capitals hold the advantage on the penalty kill, 83.8 percent to 82.5 percent. Overall, both teams sit in the top five in the Eastern Conference in both categories, so the special teams war will be pivotal.

This series will also showcase the two teams who spent the most time leading throughout the entire 2016-2017 season. Washington finished first, leading for an inconceivable 2,277.10 minutes.

The Leafs finished second, leading for 1,985. 58 minutes. Clearly, scoring first and holding the lead during a playoff game is of vital importance, perhaps even more so in this series.

While Holtby’s excellence was previously noted, we shouldn’t underestimate Frederik Andersen‘s ability to make key saves at key times. He has given the Leafs a chance during nearly every one of his starts this year, and if he’s healthy in this series, a hot run of goaltending might be enough for the Leafs to knock off the Capitals.

If any team understands the impact of a hot goalie in the playoffs it’s the Washington Capitals. In 2010, Jaroslav Halak put on a goaltending display for the ages, and led the underdog Montreal Canadiens past Washington in the first round of the playoffs.

Hockey Reference tells us that in 28 career playoff appearances, Andersen is 17-9 with a 2.34 Goals Against Average and a .916 save percentage. That’ll do Freddie, that’ll do. If he puts up those statistics this Spring he’ll at least give his team a chance, and that’s all you can ask.

The fact of the matter is the Leafs start this series on the road, and if they can somehow manage to win one of those first two games in Washington, things will change dramatically. Whether it comes via a huge power play goal or Andersen standing on his head, the Leafs just need one of those first two games to swing their way to plant a seed of doubt in Washington’s mind.

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The Capitals have been in this situation before, and they’ve proven in the past they don’t necessarily handle pressure well. Coach Mike Babcock knows all too well that the playoffs are a strange beast, and his youthful Leafs have nothing to lose in this series. Speaking to reporters today, Babcock said, “We’re going to Washington, and we plan on winning.” – *mic drop*.

In a lot of ways, this year’s group of Leafs can be compared to the Capitals of days gone by, before they learned how to properly defend and turn leads into guaranteed victories. For the young Leafs, this could be like looking into a mirror and seeing a more mature, refined reflection of themselves staring back.

Perhaps more importantly than anything they’ve accomplished this season, the Leafs have earned a playoff series against the ultimate measuring stick. Washington’s staggering +84 goal differential provides another piece of insurance they are indeed the best team in the NHL this season. If the Leafs want to win it all, they’re going to have go through the league’s best team, in what will be the first round of playoff action for a large majority of their roster.

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The rookies will need to embrace the moment, the veterans will need to deliver and Andersen will likely need to stand on his head. It’s an intimidating task but anything is possible in the playoffs. This Leafs team has proven everybody wrong all year long – let’s see if they can do it one more time.