Maple Leafs vs Capitals Playoff Preview
James van Riemsdyk is one of the few Maple Leafs with playoff experience (Photo via Getty Images/Icon Sportswire)
It is officially that time of the year. Aside from wedding season (according to WeddingCrashers), playoff hockey season is unequivocally the best time of the year. These playoffs are going to be a little different from the last four, however.
As nature goes, leaves start to sprout in the spring and it holds true in the NHL. The Toronto Maple Leafs have budded from a pathetic cellar dwelling team into the most exciting young team in the league. For the first time since 2013, the Maple Leafs are back in the playoffs.
As electrifying as that may be, it could have been so much sweeter if not a disappointing result from game 82. The Leafs had a chance to jump into the 3rd spot of the Atlantic Division. In that scenario, Toronto plays provincial rival, the Ottawa Senators, instead of President’s Trophy winning Washington Capitals.
All data comes from Corsica.hockey, Hockey-reference.com, NHL.com, and puckalytics.com
Regular season matchup:
The Maple Leafs and the Capitals met three times throughout the course of the regular season. The Buds went 1-1-1, although they did slap up 7 goals on 45 shots against Braden Holtby. The Leafs won the first contest 4-2, getting all four goals from all four lines, including the rare Matt Martin goal! The Leafs lost the next meeting in a 6-5 loss in overtime, both Holtby and Frederik Andersen got shelled and the game ended on an Alexander Ovechkin goal. The last meeting was another win by the Caps, picking on Leafs backup Curtis McElhinney.
(Data via Corscia)
Toronto Maple Leafs (40-27-15, 95 points, 4th Atlantic, 2nd Wildcard)
The journey: Boy, oh, boy what a season that these Maple Leafs have had. They ended the 2015-16 season in dead last, but with also with a lot of hope. Their fortunes turned around on April 30th when they won the draft lottery and cashed in at the NHL Draft in June by taking likely Calder winner and Toronto savior, Auston Matthews.
The season itself started with Matthews scoring four goals in his debut in an overtime loss. Those would be the first of 40 he would score on the season in one of the most spectacular rookie season.
Speaking of rookies, the Leafs also had two Calder worthy nominees in William Nylander (12th most powerplay points in the league) and Mitch Marner (Maple Leafs rookie record 42 assists). The big three combined to win four of the six Rookie of the Month awards. Lastly, fellow rookie Connor Brown scored 20 goals, Zach Hyman was an effective penalty killer with 4 shorthanded goals, and Nikita Zaitsev played top-pair minutes, while finishing just out of the top 10 in rookie scoring.
A few veterans had terrific years, too. Nazem Kadri had 32 goals. James van Riemsdyk set a career high in points with 62, while Tyler Bozak finally cracked 50 points. Frederik Andersen looked solid as a true number one goaltender with a .918 sv% and finished 7th in quality starts.
The Leafs were on the cusp of clinching a playoff berth for a few days, failing to clinch against Washington and Tampa Bay, but officially punched in their ticket to the big dance against Pittsburgh.
Health watch: The biggest health issue for Toronto is obviously Frederik Andersen. His head was bumped from the side against Pittsburgh, which forced him to leave the game and miss the final game of the season. Clearly, this is a big concern since this is a head injury but Andersen is expected to be ready to go for game 1. On the other hand, Nikita Zaitsev who got hurt against Columbus, is ruled out of game 1 with an upper body injury. This leaves a big hole on the right side of the defense.
Whom to watch for: I think the biggest player to watch for is Frederik Andersen. We all know that the Leafs offense is potent (5th in goals scored), but their defense is susceptible to mistakes (22nd in goals against). Andersen has played reasonably well enough to have confidence going into a series with Washington. There have been times, he goes through streaks and looks like a brick wall. On the other hand, there are other stretches where stopping a beach ball might be difficult for him.
He’s put up a .927 5v5 sv%, all while facing the second most shots against and the fourth most high danger shot attempts against. Andersen has shown he’s capable of being the work horse. The Great Dane will need to be more than capable in this series. If he’s healthy, the best shot at a Leafs upset is if Andersen’s sv% is hovering around .935.
Conn Smythe candidate: With all due respect, to Nazem Kadri, whom I think has been so consistent all year, if the Leafs want to make a run, they’ll need a big performance from Auston Matthews. He is just the 11th player in league history to score 40 goals in their 19-year-old season, and just one of three to hit that mark this season. Matthews also had the highest individual xG in the league this year and was the only player to score at least 30 even strength goals this year.
Key stat: I say a number like 47.5% and most people would probably assume it’s Corsi, Fenwick, zone starts, etc. How about that that’s the percentage of points that all of the rookies had for the Maple Leafs this season? The young guns play an integral part of this offense and will continue to need to score about half the points the Leafs get against Washington.
Why they win: Freddy Andersen puts a sv% higher than .940%. Auston Matthews is the best player in the series and is able to carry the offensive load. The injury of Zaitsev doesn’t hurt them as much as we think (he secretly drags everyone’s possession numbers down). Nylander continues his phenomenal play from down the stretch. The number 2 ranked powerplay (23.3%) gets plenty of opportunities and fires on all cylinders. Nazem Kadri continues to flourish in a shutdown role and chips in offensively, as well.
Why they lose: Have you seen that defense? And have you seen that Capitals offense? The back end is outclassed. Freddy Andersen has a sv% closer to league average (.913%) or just clearly isn’t 100% healthy. Martin Marincin, who seemed to have no confidence this year and barely played, looks like an AHLer. The depth on offense and defense is just no match against a team like the Capitals. The rookies, who have never played 82+ games in a season, are worn down from the longevity of the season.
(Data via Corsica)
Washington Capitals (55-19-8, 118 points, 1st in Metropolitan, 1st in Eastern Conference, President’s Trophy)
The journey: Last spring was yet another disappointment for Washington. After a league leading 56 wins, they were bounced in six games in the semifinals against eventual Stanley Cup winning, Pittsburgh Penguins. They loaded up and still couldn’t get passed the second round of the playoffs.
This season, they started off relatively well for the first three months, right up there in the top teams in the east. However, they shifted to another gear come December. In the months of January and February, the Caps went off on a scintillating 21-4-2 run and a +54 goal differential. And as good as that team was already, they dealt for stud blueliner Kevin Shattenkirk as a rental.
All of their players had exceptional seasons as well. Alexander Ovechkin did Alexander Ovechkin things and scored 30 goals for the 12th straight season, even with the second worst shooting percentage of his career. Nicklas Backstrom had a quietly amazing season, finishing 4th in scoring and 1st in powerplay scoring. The third piece to the top line, T.J. Oshie, is going to get paid handsomely after the season he had. He set a career high with 33 goals and finished 4th in even strength goals per hour.
The second line of Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Justin Williams provided splendid secondary scoring, with Johansson and Williams cracking 20 goals, while Johansson and Kuznetsov each topped 50 points.
Perhaps the most underrated line in line is the combination of Andre Burakovsky, Lars Eller, and Brett Connolly. The scoring might not wow you, but they did all hit double digits in goals. The one thing they do so well is control the shot rate. Among all trios who played 200 minutes together, they were 9th in Rel. CF% with a +8.59. They might not be an offensive dynamo but they always seem to be controlling the puck.
Of course, we need to bring up the MVP for this team and that is Braden Holtby. He had a fantastic 5v5 sv% at .935%, third among all starters and a .955 sv% for all unblocked shots. He is their rock and has even shown that in the playoffs with an otherworldly .937 sv%.
Health watch: John Carlson missed the last four games of the year with a lower-body injury, but should draw into the lineup for game 1. Brett Connolly, who has been a nice revelation for Washington this season, missed games 81 and 82, but like Carlson, should be in the lineup for their playoff opener.
Whom to watch for: The playoffs are always the perfect time for a star to break out and we just may have our break out star with Dmitry Orlov. He’s in the top 20 among defenseman in CF% (54.38%, 13th) and Rel CF% (+4.06, 16th). That’s comfrtobaly in the range of star defenseman such as PK Subban, Mark Giordano, and Brent Burns realm. Orlov is a wonderful defenseman and I think this is where he breaks out and becomes a lot more well known.
Conn Smythe candidate: It has to be Braden Holtby here. As mentioned before, Holtby’s playoff sv% is at .937%. Every single postseason he is unquestionably one of the best players of these loaded teams. He has the ability to not just steal a series, but to put the team on his back and carry them to the Finals. Since he became the Capitals goalie, he’s been one of the best playoff goaltenders.
Key stat: As marvelous as Holtby has been, his worst obstacle has been the opposing goalie. How, you might ask? Well the opposing goalie is slapping up a .933 sv%. So somehow, in every single series the Caps have had Holtby, they get great goaltending from him, but face about almost the same level.
Why they win: Holtby has been the best playoff goaltender in the last two years. The top line of Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Oshie is too much to handle for the Leafs defense. The 10th ranked penalty kill shuts down Toronto’s powerplay. The Capitals have three legitimately great pairs of defenseman, who can all play top four minutes. This is far and away the deepest team in hockey, three lines that can score, an effective fourth line, defense depth, great goaltending, and great special teams.
Why they lose: It’s lazy to say they choke but Freddy Andersen could do what Jaroslav Halak did to Washington a few years ago. Kuznetsov has had two shaky playoff performances and could affect the secondary scoring. Ovechkin only had 16 even strength goals, so if the Leafs stay out of the box, which could be problematic. Backstrom, too, was a little powerplay reliant and a disciplined Leafs team could hurt him as well. Really, there’s a lot of nitpicking. There’s almost no holes with this team.
Prediction: Capitals in 5. They are way too deep and way too potent on offense and defense. It’ll be closer than people think but the Capitals will prove to be too much.
(Data via Corsica)