It took six close games, five of them decided in overtime, for the Washington Capitals to finally extinguish the Toronto Maple Leafs with Marcus Johansson tallying his second goal of the night to give the Caps a 2-1 victory 6:31 into the extra session. The Caps will now move on to face the Pittsburgh Penguins in round two, starting on Thursday night at the Verizon Center, in what is a rematch of last spring’s second round battle.
Like game five, this was another tight defensive battle with strong goaltending. Neither team scored through 40 minutes, with the Leafs owning the lead in the shot attempt totals, at 47-38, but the Caps had the better of the scoring chances, especially their second line.
In the third period, it was anyone’s game, but Washington started to take over with their depth. The Capitals had several good scoring chances, but then a weird bounce and a missed defensive assignment cost them the first goal.
Morgan Reilly dumped the puck in to the Caps end and it took a crazy carom off of the glass into the slot. Auston Matthews, who is already a star in this league at age 19, jumped on the puck and went in alone on Braden Holtby (37 saves). The kid from the desert went top shelf on the Holtbeast to make it 1-0 just 7:45 into the final frame. It was a fortuitous break for Toronto, but the goal was preventable. Had Evgeny Kuznetsov kept skating instead of gliding at the Caps defesnsive blue line, he could have beaten Matthews to the puck. It’s a good lesson for #92 and the whole team to learn in the playoffs – a single missed stride can cost your team a goal.
In the past, the Matthews tally might have devastated the Caps bench, but not this year. No, this team amped their game up and started taking the play to the Maple Leafs and just over five minutes after #34 had all of Yonge Street thinking there was going to be a game seven, the Caps tied it up.
Lars Eller made a strong offensive zone entry on the left wing boards and he fed a streaking Johansson in the slot. Marcus pushed the puck ahead to escape the Leaf defender and then he pinballed one in off of Frederik Andersen (34 saves) into the net with just 7:09 remaining. It was a monstrous tally and it came because the Capitals started to push the play.
Washington would continue to do that and then in the overtime, they took their game to 11.
The Caps had no thoughts of sitting back on Coach Mike Babcock’s squad and they thoroughly outworked and dominated a young Leafs team in the overtime. They had several scoring chances, Comcast’s Alan May had it 7 to 1, with Jojo getting his second of the night and the series winner on a play where he simply did what he had done all season long to score a career high in goals (24), he went to the front of the net.
A Leafs icing forced Babcock to leave a tired crew on the ice, which included game one goat, Martin Marincin, as well as his fourth line (Kasperi Kapanen-Brian Boyle-Matt Martin). Coach Barry Trotz took his third line off and inserted Johansson, Kuznetsov, and Mr. Clutch, Justin Williams. Kuznetsov, who like many other Caps centers struggled on draws all game, won a huge face off against Boyle. When Stick received the puck from John Carlson on the right wing half wall, he smartly fired it on net. Jojo was parked in the slot above the paint and he appeared to tip the initial shot into Andersen’s pads and then fought off Marincin to bury the game and series clincher.
Wow, what a game and what a performance by the Caps once they were down, 1-0! They pushed the play and looked like the team that won the Presidents’ Trophy this season. It’s the way they’ll need to play in the second round if they want to defeat the defending Stanley Cup Champions.
Winning the first round is always the toughest; ask any hockey player, coach or executive and they’ll back me up. It was even harder for Washington because everyone picked them to win quickly and the Leafs had nothing to lose. Simply put, there was a TON OF PRESSURE on the Capitals to win this series and move on to face the Penguins for the rematch from last spring.
As Coach Barry Trotz told me, Nestor Aparacio, and the great crowd at Greenmount Station back on March 20th, every series takes a piece out of you. Toronto took some pieces out of the Caps. Karl Alzner didn’t play after game two due to an upper body injury, Nazem Kadri put a cheap shot on Alex Ovechkin and knocked Ovi out for two plus minutes of game five (but the Russian Machine Never Breaks), and Leo Komarov put a dirty hit on Nate Schmidt late in game six (but the 88 car also returned to play four shifts after the hit, including being on the ice for the game winner).
Luckily the Gr8 and Schmidt, plus T.J. Oshie, who I could see mouth “I’m all right” to Caps trainer Greg “Smitty” Smith after blocking a shot right before the winning goal, should be ready for Thursday night’s game one against the Penguins at the Verizon Center. The Leafs may have taken some pieces out of the Caps, that’s still to be determined how much, but in my book, Washington was able to ramp their game up to a tempo they’ll need to be at against Pittsburgh. I’m not sure they get to that pace level in a series against the Bruins or Ottawa. So I’m still glad the Capitals faced the Leafs. It was a very hard series, but they overcame an inordinate amount of pressure and persevered.
Anyways, the Penguins series should be one heck of a rematch. The Caps have waited a whole year for it, but we’ll talk more about it as the week progresses, but let’s hope there’s a Rocky 2 type of ending this spring.
Notes: Final shot attempts were 70-67, for Washington. It was all Caps after the Leafs marker…Ovechkin had 12 shot attempts, including seven on goal, in 22:45…the Caps lost the face off battle, 39-22, but they won some key ones, including right before the series winning tally. Kuznetsov was 6-8 (best Caps percentage)…Oshie had another strong game with five shots on goal in 19:35…the Caps were shorthanded for just 22 seconds and they had 2:22 of power play time…the Holtbeast was outstanding in this tilt, which included a huge save on Komarov, who was all alone after he took his run at Schmidt and #88 limped to the bench…Dmitry Orlov led the Caps in ice time with 25:38 and his partner, Matt Niskanen, logged 25:15. They played the hard minutes and that allowed Carlson and Schmidt to help the Capitals drive the play when they were on the ice…the Caps won the last three games of this series, which came after Coach Trotz tweaked his forward lines right before game four (bumped Tom Wilson up to the third line).