Our Toronto Maple Leafs are poised to take on the Washington Capitals in Round One of the playoffs, beginning Thursday night. As in previous installments, I split my mind in two to discuss things.
Pessimist: The Washington Capitals have the deadliest forward group in the NHL. Their top line of elite distributing C Nicklas Backstrom, ace sniper Alex Ovechkin, and finishing phenom T.J. Oshie has raised hell all year—Backstrom is fourth in the NHL in points, while Ovi and Oshie have 33 goals apiece. That top line is backed by a murderer’s row of secondary talent, featuring names like Evgeni Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky, and Mr. Playoffs himself, Justin Williams. Even the quality defensive depth forwards—Jay Beagle, Lars Eller, and ex-Leaf Daniel Winnik, to name three—all are double digits in goals. Add it all together, and you have an offence that’s led the Caps to second in the NHL in goals for while being stunningly solid defensively. This group is going to give Toronto fits.
Optimist: Yes. You are correct.
Pessimist: ...I...what? I’m saying the Leafs are overmatched at forward.
Optimist: Definitely. They’re probably going to get slaughtered.
Pessimist: Oh. But...aren’t you upset about that?
Optimist: Dude, this playoff series is pure gravy. You could serve it with Thanksgiving dinner. Even I didn’t think the Leafs would make the playoffs one year out of last place. I don’t care what happens now. Maybe we’ll win a game! It would be exciting if we did.
Pessimist: Look, the conceit of this segment isn’t going to work if we don’t argue. You have to try.
Optimist: Oh, all right. Uh...[squints at spreadsheet]...basically, the Leafs are as good offensively as the Capitals are. No Capital has come close to Auston Matthews’ 40 goals, and the Leafs can roll three effective scoring lines. The Leafs’ powerplay is actually ranked higher--second in the NHL—than the Caps (third.) Toronto can score with this team.
Pessimist: [relieved] Right, but then they’ll run into the Barry Trotz defensive system, and the Leafs will struggle with Washington’s physicality. The young Leafs forwards have always had a hard time recovering the puck and exiting their own zone. And they won’t get odd man rushes or effective zone time to nearly the same extent they’re familiar with.
Pessimist: Goddamnit man.
Optimist: The Leafs’ mobile defence, led by Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, and the hopefully healthy Nikita Zaitsev, has always helped them generate scoring chances. There’s no reason to expect it won’t continue to do so.
Optimist: It’s not as good as Washington’s though.
Pessimist: YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG.
Optimist: C’mon. They have Matt Niskanen and John Carlson leading them, Orpik has even been moderately effective, and then they added another top-pairing defender in Kevin Shattenkirk.
Pessimist: Well...maybe they’re struggle to adjust! I mean, it’s not easy adding another big piece in mid season. And Karl Alzner is incredibly overrated. Orpik is slow.
Optimist: Honestly, man, they’re just too deep. They have one of the best power-play quarterbacks in the NHL now and they were dangerous as hell before. They’re physical and they block off the danger areas like they’re building barricades. They’re the best team in the NHL in goals against for a reason—or for multiple reasons, and one of them is that defence core.
Pessimist: I...alright, you know what, fine.
Optimist: Frederik Andersen, assuming he’s healthy, is a quality starter in the NHL.
Pessimist: Braden Holtby is better, though.
Pessimist: NEXT SECTION.
Pessimist: Come on, give this one a try.
Optimist: Mike Babcock is possibly the best coach in the NHL. He’s an elite tactician, and he knows exactly how to maximize the value of his lineup. He’s effectively deployed the Bozak line all year to get the most offence out of it, while using the Kadri line for two-way work. He’ll put Kadri out against the Backstrom unit, while positioning Matthews and co. to capitalize. It might work.
Pessimist: Barry Trotz is also a very good coach, though—one of the best defensive coaches in the league. He’s helped turn the Caps from a team that was offence-first bordering on offence-only...to one that’s absolutely dominant, a top-three possession team.
Optimist: Whereas the Leafs are a top-tier team in Corsi For, producing chances and shots in droves. It’s really an interesting clash, if you think about it—one team built for offence...
Pessimist: ...and one built to be good at everything.
Optimist: Look, the Leafs have two things going for them.
- They have the offence and goaltending to have an outside chance to steal a series from a better team.
- The Capitals have a weird history of blowing playoff series they were heavily favoured to win.
The modern NHL has enough parity that even the most overmatched playoff team has maybe a 20% shot at an upset. That’s where the Leafs are. For a team that was in 30th last year, that’s a good place to be.
Pessimist: Caps in four.
Optimist: Caps in six.
Pessimist: There’s the optimist.