We did a team round-table asking a few wide-ranging questions.
How do you feel today, Leafs fans?
El Seldo: Tired.
Arvind: For the first question, it's jubilation. We were (rightly) massive underdogs going into this series, and winning two of the first three is more than most expected, including myself.
Nafio: I am so bouncy that if they win another and go two days between games I might burst.
Are the Leafs lucky or skillful?
Arvind: The Caps top line is still the best line in the series. Nicklas Backstrom scares me whenever he hops over the boards. That group has shown up, including two goals in game three. However, they're not getting used as much as I think they should. Barry Trotz is known for liking and trusting his fourth line, but every shift Jay Beagle takes is one that could've gone to a better player. While the Leafs were pretty egalitarian with TOI in the regular season, I think Babcock has shown more willingness to shorten the bench and ride or die with his stars, particularly on the blueline.
Arvind: Auston Matthews' group has destroyed everything in their path. Generally matched up against the Evgeny Kuznetsov line, the all-rookie trio has dominated, and totally neutered what was a theoretical advantage for the Capitals - the fact that they basically have two first lines. William Nylander has been the best Leafs skater, and should be drawing comps to the slick-passing Swedish centre on the other team.
Arvind: Frederik Andersen has played Braden Holtby to a draw. Another theoretical advantage for the Caps is who they have in net. Holtby is a Top 5 goaltender, Andersen is a bit above league average. They've both played similarly well, which has narrowed the gap between the teams. Andersen has bailed out our leaky defense on numerous occassions.
Acha: Every time I re-watch Tyler Bozak's OT goal I think: how does Holtby not have that one? And then I remember that getting the President's Trophy is an enormously difficult feat, and that perhaps the Washington Capitals exhausted themselves getting there. Due to this season's compressed schedule, I couldn't help but notice that goalies started getting injured in the last few weeks of the regular season. I can't imagine playing the most difficult hockey after all 82 games are over, and perhaps we're seeing the inevitable exhaustion that comes from busting ass.
Arvind: The Leafs aren't THAT lucky to be in this position. They've played three strong games against one of the best teams in the league. Any one of those games could have gone in either direction. People felt that if the Leafs were to win this series, they'd have to steal it from Washington. That hasn't been the case. They're not stealing it right now, they're winning it, fair and square.
Nafio: Looking over when we talked earlier I am now recalling Mitch Marner's ridiculous, "Why yes I'm good at standing box jumps why do you ask," moment that nearly got Bozak a goal. The Caps should be nervous about what happens if all the rookies start clicking in the same game.
Arvind: The other scary thing if you're a Caps fan, this is a team whose best RD just got back from a relatively serious injury in Game 3. You'd think he'd be better as the series progresses and he gets his legs under him.
Fulemin: The best news for the Caps is that 2-1 is hardly an insurmountable lead. There's nothing impossible about the hill they have to climb, but their position makes me think of the first season of Mad Men. All the ad execs are pro-Richard Nixon in the 1960 election, and they keep noticing John F. Kennedy's success in the polls, and they mutter, "It should never have been this close."
Arvind: Yeah, they're absolutely good enough to win the next three in comfortable fashion, overcoming the adversity of an 'overrated team' as some bloggers would say.
Should we be afraid of a more physical Caps team?
Nafio: Are we worried about the Caps making it more physical next game or does that not come unless the Leafs win three?
Arvind: I think the Leafs can respond physically.
Fulemin: I think we saw them attempt it early and the Leafs more or less responded on even terms. Nazem Kadri hitting Brooks Orpik, etc. The Caps will keep trying to slow the Leafs down, but this isn't a series where either team can survive a lopsided penalty differential, so there are limits.
Arvind: The Leafs are no wallflowers. The guys people worried about getting picked on are probably Matthews, Nylander, Marner, and Kasperi Kapanen. Matthews is 6'3" and bounces off of people. Nylander and Marner are on the slight side, but teams have tried to hit them all year, and they've been good. Maybe it has some effect on Kapanen, but again, that's something he's been playing around his whole life. And guys like Kadri, Leo Komarov, Brian Boyle, and Zach Hyman can dish it out as well.
Nafio: Sorry by "physical" I didn't mean "legal."
Arvind: Hm. Then I guess that's always a concern, but so far, the refs haven't swallowed their whistles that much. As long as it gets called, I think it's a bad strategy for them.
Fulemin: Fair, but then you risk a penalty. Not that Tom Wilson or whoever is incapable of it, but I would be leery of taking bad calls if I were the Caps.
Nafio: So then not unless the Leafs win three, and they start feeling the wall at their backs.
Katya: I keep thinking of the line, I think it was Holtby on Matthews, that he never gives up on the puck, he just keeps coming back, second try, third try, fourth try. And I think that's the Leafs in this series. First OT, second OT, third OT. Never give up.
Fulemin: The resilience in game three was the sort of thing you're supposed to have to learn, that's the no-panic-veteran-calm that's so mythologized. And Team Rookie showed it in spades against the President's Trophy winners.
What is Trotz up to with Ovechkin, anyway?
Fulemin: No-vechkin —
Alex Ovechkin played just 15:08 in Game Three https://t.co/YWFfBW3XB7— RMNB (@russianmachine) April 18, 2017
Katyaknappe: This is the biggest problem Washington has. Trotz won't play him 5x5 even when he should. I mean, if Babcock can stand there and watch Bozak's line, Trotz should be able to buck up and play a much better quality of glass cannon.
Fulemin: I'd love to see an analysis of how the coaching matchup has gone. I get some of it and I intuit that it is going to our benefit (because this series should not be this close) but the finer points of it I'm not as sure of.
Nafio: I wonder if to some extent it comes down to Babcock being more familiar with the Caps than Trotz is with the Leafs?
Fulemin: Hm. That's interesting, Nafio. On the other hand the Red Wings only recently game from the West, like a few years back.
Nafio: Lots of vets on the Caps though. Have their systems changed substantially in the last few years? Has "how to beat the Caps" changed? Whereas Trotz seems to still be figuring out wtf to do with this basket of kittens that roar.
Fulemin: Yeah that's a fair point. Also quality metaphor. The biggest surprise to me is that the vaunted Caps defence has totally failed to slow down the Leafs' forwards. The Caps can beat us run and gun, and they still might, but their physical defence that allowed only bad shots and few of them was what was supposed to make the series such a mismatch. They just have not contained the Leafs defensively, for all that talk about less room in the playoffs.
Nafio: Were they shutting down the Matthews line in the first two games or were the kids just unlucky?
Fulemin: Unlucky. Matthews a little bit they put the blanket on.
Nafio: I figured based on shot totals.
Fulemin: The Leafs do have a tremendously deep and offensively talented forward lineup, so it's a bit of an acid test in that regard--but the Caps' defence has ultimately not been any better at shutting down the Leafs than the inferior and injured Leafs' group has been at shutting down the Caps. If that doesn't get fixed, and Holtby continues to be merely good instead of superhuman, the Leafs are narrow favourites to win the series now. That is incredible to me.
Katya: But I thought the Capitals were scary, tho.
Fulemin: And we were right to think they were scary! They are a real team. if the Leafs do miraculously pull off this upset, there will be much talk about how the Capitals are tragically and fatally flawed in conception and structure. They are not. The Caps are a very good all-around team facing a top three forward group in the NHL, and that forward group and the goalie behind it have performed well enough to win two out of three.
Fulemin: That's what's so crazy about all this: it's not the Caps imploding. It's the Leafs getting it done.
Katya: What did stand out to me in game three was a couple of long stretches of offensive zone dominance by the Leafs in the third period. They were putting on a clinic on puck control and positioning and they were also getting shots. This wasn't the LA Kings' passing practice, this was dangerous hockey. And then the play went the other way, and...okay, the Leafs were defensively capable enough. But only just enough. And that's the tightrope they walk, and we just watch it.