It only took three games of his Washington Capitals’ first round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs for coach Barry Trotz to drive a stake through the common narrative surrounding the series.
“It’s a lot closer match than people let on,” Trotz said after game 3 of the series Monday night. “It’s not David and Goliath.”
This isn’t a stretch of a response from Trotz by any means. Quite the opposite in fact: after a dramatic 4–3 overtime win Monday, the wild card Leafs lead the series against the President’s Trophy winning Capitals. The Leafs have flipped the script. Many expected this series to not go past five games, including Hall of Famer Mike Modano, who tweeted as much after the Capitals jumped to a 2–0 lead during the 1st period on Monday.
“Enjoy these two home games cause this is over in 5 for @Capitals” he wrote.
The series will go at least six games…if the Capitals can get there. That familiar playoff pressure that follows the perennially underperforming Capitals has emerged earlier than usual.
How they got here, losing two games against a Leafs team they generally manhandled in the regular season, is perplexing.
Taking into account the double-overtime Game 2, and that the other two games have also gone into the extra frame, Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin is averaging the sixth-most ice time amongst Caps forwards. He was first among forwards through the regular season.
Trotz has promised a better Capitals team will show up moving forward. Part of that will have to include playing Ovechkin more: he has two goals in three games and while he hasn’t been as dominant as perhaps some Caps fans would want him to be, he’s still found the back of the net.
“That’s on me to get him the ice time,” Trotz said after Tuesday’s optional skate for the Capitals. “Sometimes, that’s situational. Sometimes, that’s the zone starts. So his minutes should be—I can get those up. Sometimes, you have a bump-up lines you’re killing penalty killers’ minutes and that’s Backstrom and Oshie. You sort of miss a rep or two here or there.”
“But it wasn’t based on play,” added Trotz. “I thought (Ovechkin) was playing terrific, and it’s on me to get him a little more ice time, no question.”
Another necessary change will be to not let the Leafs’ speed stifle the Capitals.
The Leafs’ quickness and their ability to skate with seeming reckless abandon is nothing new. What is new is how the Capitals, with all their experience, are letting them do that without pushing back.
Without selling the Leafs short, this actually was a David vs. Goliath matchup that the Capitals have let get away from them.
“They’ve been playing good hockey all year,” Toronto native and Capitals forward Tom Wilson said of the Leafs. “In order to get into the playoffs, you have to be playing elite hockey. You see a couple series that a 3-0 or 2-0 but I really don’t think there’s such a thing as a full sweep anymore. If you manage to win four in a row, you’re extremely lucky. Most series end up being a battle. And in the first round, that’s when everyone’s going the hardest, that’s when everyone is the freshest. We were expecting a good battle and that’s what they gave us. It’s on us now to push harder and push them out of the way.”
“You don’t really get surprised in the playoffs, at least as many times as I’ve been in the playoffs,” said Capitals forward T.J. Oshie. “They’re playing great. They’re playing hard. They’ve got a lot of good players. We knew that going in. So by no means was it a surprise.”
During the Leafs’ final week in the regular season, a number of teams, including the Capitals, played Leafs forward Auston Matthews, a likely Calder Trophy candidate, incredibly tight and physical. Teams’ best offensive weapons often get a rough ride during the playoffs but Matthews and his rookie line mates, including Zach Hyman and William Nylander, have gotten away relatively unscathed. The trio had the highest Corsi For % of any three players during Monday’s game. That three rookies have been allowed to dictate the course of play in a time when experience is generally at a premium speaks to the problems the Capitals are experiencing.
“If you make the playoffs, you're a very good team,” said Trotz this week. “I look at the depth of their forwards. They can match up with any team in the National Hockey League.”
That may be true, but perhaps only because the Capitals are allowing them to.