Toronto Maple Leafs @ Washington Capitals
Game 5; Series Tied 2-2
Verizon Center; Washington, DC
7:00 p.m. ET; CBC
The Opposition: Japers' Rink
Even with the elation of the Leafs going up 2-1 in the series, you had to know in the back of your mind that this was coming. The Leafs defied all expectations and hung right with the Capitals in the first three games of the series. It was a Panic on the Potomac as the Leafs took two of those games and Caps fans began to fear an all-too-familiar script. We can say that we knew better than they did that there was no reason to panic, but this is a market where going on a hot streak too early in the season causes angst, so I suppose it's understandable.
But, you knew. I knew. We all knew that the one group of people who were not about to panic were the Washington Capitals themselves. This team certainly didn't amass 118 points and a second consecutive President's Trophy by accident, and it was a reasonable expectation that if an upstart band of young whippersnappers were to topple them in the first round, they would not go down without a fight. No sir.
Which brings us to Game 4. An ugly, ugly Game 4.
The Capitals, as one would expect a very good team trailing a series to do, came out swinging hard. For their troubles, they got an early 2-0 lead. While the Leafs got within one, Tom Wilson's goal-line stand on Morgan Rielly followed by a goal of his all but iced the game. The Leafs trailed 4-1 after one, and if anything, that may have been a bit generous for the home club, who were outshot 15-6 and out-attempted 30-17.
The Leafs didn't get much going in the second, and spent the start of the third on a 5-on-3 where JVR missed an open net and the team largely shot pucks right into Braden Holtby's pads. The Leafs played a much better third period to get within one, but a Keystone Kops routine at the Leafs blueline leading to a TJ Oshie goal put the dagger in the game.
The Leafs played like absolute garbage. Frederik Andersen- who allowed 5 goals on 27 shots, an .813 SV%- looked utterly human. This is about the worst you could have expected the Leafs to play and the best you could have expected the Capitals to play.
But the Leafs only lost by one goal.
That's your cause for optimism right there. The Leafs, despite spending much of the 60 minutes of Game 4 pointing a Smith & Wesson squarely at their own foot, were still within a goal. Despite allowing four goals in the first period- more than they allowed in a single game to this point- they made it a one-goal game. Everything that could have gone wrong did in Game 4, but the Leafs still made it a game.
The Caps, to their credit, showed why they were the best team this season. They smell blood and go back to home ice, so they're unlikely to relent. But the Leafs hung with them as best they could on their worst day. If they can make adjustments, cut back on the defensive miscues, and get a solid night from Andersen, there's no reason they can't regain the series lead.
Let's start with what the Leafs need to do to win Game 5, because it's quite simple: (a) make adjustments; and, (b) don't be stupid.
The Leafs have been at their best in this series when they've confounded the Capitals with their speed. If you've followed the "pace" metric at all this year (basically an aggregation of 5v5 shot attempts for and against per 60 minutes), you would know the Caps are a relatively stingy group, while the Leafs' style is more akin to Evel Knievel jumping two dozen flaming school buses while juggling chainsaws and solving a Rubik's Cube. The first three games played more like the latter, to the Leafs' benefit. The fourth, not so much.
The Leafs need to find a way to wear the Capitals down again, and that starts and ends with the Matthews line. James Mirtle had a very in-depth look at how the Caps stymied the Matthews line by giving them a steady diet of Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov, which turned out to be quite effective. The Caps have last change in Game 5, so don't expect that to go anywhere. The Leafs will need to either find a way to solve Niskanen or shuffle the deck effectively to get a more favourable matchup elsewhere.
The Capitals tactically did a lot well in Game 4, but the Leafs really need to stop the vast array of missed assignments and blown coverage that led to many of the Caps goals. The Leafs certainly aren't known for their defensive prowess, but I would have to think something as simple as "maybe don't have four guys play hot potato with the puck so TJ Oshie gets in all alone" would go a long way.
Also, let the Matthews goal be a guide on how to succeed: just put pucks on the net from anywhere, and have people ready to get the rebounds. Be opportunistic.
How the Capitals can win Game 5 is easy: just keep doing what they did in Game 4.
The Caps' style in Game 4 was reminiscent of their 4-1 win in Toronto earlier this month. They plugged the defensive zone, stifled the Leafs' speed, neutralized their offensive threats, and didn't give them time and space. If they can continue down that path, the Leafs will have a difficult time doing what they do best.
More importantly, Braden Holtby has to get back to being Braden Holtby. For all the Capitals' strengths, Holtby has looked vulnerable all series. Even in Game 4, he allowed four goals on 34 shots and was fairly leaky at times. Overall in this series, he has not looked like the presumptive Vezina nominee with the .925 SV% that he was in the regular season.
It is unlikely we will see much change from Game 4, so here is what we have. The only wildcard for the Caps is Karl Alzner, who is said to be day-to-day and unlikely to play in Game 5.
Leo Komarov - Nazem Kadri - Connor Brown
Zach Hyman - Auston Matthews - William Nylander
James Van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - Mitchell Marner
Matt Martin - Brian Boyle - Kasperi Kapanen
Jake Gardiner - Nikita Zaitsev
Morgan Rielly - Matt Hunwick
Martin Marincin - Connor Carrick
Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie
Marcus Johansson - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Justin Williams
Andre Burakovsky - Lars Eller- Tom Wilson
Daniel Winnik - Jay Beagle - Brett Connolly
Nate Schmidt - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik - Kevin Shattenkirk
BUDS ALL DAY