Tax Day came and went this week and reminding tens of millions of Americans about one of life’s few certainties. For Washingtonians, however, tax season also riles up another unfortunate guarantee: a Capitals playoff choke. Though a series-tying Game 4 victory in Toronto may reassure some Caps fans, the writing is on the wall; if the Capitals manage to survive the pesky, upstart Maple Leafs, then the experience and reigning Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins will probably end Washington’s hunt for the Cup in the next round.
To be clear, the Capitals are a very good hockey team. For the second consecutive season, they won the President’s Cup, which is awarded to the team with the most points during the regular season. By comparison, the next closest team was Pittsburgh; finishing seven points, or roughly four wins, behind Washington. The Maple Leafs barely eked into the playoffs with 95 points but are halfway to an upset of monumental proportions.
After Washington blew a two-goal lead in the third period of Monday’s Game 3 — and nearly did the same in Game 4 — there is major doubt in Washington and major optimism in Toronto. Part of it has to do with age and experience. On Toronto’s part, most of the key players are young enough to know that they are not supposed to win. Three of the top five point scorers for the Maple Leafs are 20 years old or younger and, though rookie phenom Auston Matthews is the only Maple Leaf in the league’s top 20 in total points, Toronto has five of the league’s top-40 point scorers.
The balance and depth that Toronto possesses has been on full display in this opening-round series. Toronto’s 14 goals thus far have been scored by 10 different players, and the third and fourth line contributions have been invaluable. On the other hand, Washington has had to rely on its star power. While the likes of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have shown up to play, the play from the third and fourth lines have been severely lacking, even enticing line shakeups for Wednesday’s game. Of the bottom six forwards for Washington, only the players occupying the third line have recorded points. If Washington is to beat Toronto and have a serious shot at the Cup, it needs increased production from its final two lines.
Further frustrating Washington has been its dependence on power plays. During the regular season, Washington scored on 23.1 percent of its power plays and, though the sample size is much smaller in the first-round series against Toronto, the Capitals have converted 36 percent of their opportunities with a man advantage. In Game 3, however, while leading 3-1, Washington failed to score, despite having a five-on-three advantage. A goal in that situation probably would have iced the game and extinguished any hopes of a Maple Leaf comeback. Four of Washington’s fourteen goals have come with a man advantage while only three of Toronto’s fourteen have; this implies the Maple Leafs are outplaying Washington at even strength.
Though many people may blame the average play of Washington goalie Braden Holtby, such blame would be misguided. During the regular season, Holtby was third in the NHL in save percentage, but, in this series, he has played nearly two-and-a-half percentage points below his regular season average and three percentage point below his career playoff average. In essence, Holtby has gone from a top-five goalie to a mediocre goalie in the span of a few games, but save percentage alone does not tell the whole story. Toronto’s aggressive play and lightning-quick speed have created defensive problems for Washington.
At other times, Washington’s defense has just been lazy. In Game 2, the Capitals ceded two goals, because they failed to clear the puck out of their defensive zone or put a body in front of a Maple Leaf who was screening Holtby in front of the net. These two rather elementary plays are just some of the basic defensive breakdowns that the Capitals have committed in this first round series. Just like any quality goalie, Holtby needs some help from his defensemen, but he has not been getting it. As a result, Toronto has been getting high-quality scoring chances and converting them.
Though the Capitals certainly are not dead, they are vulnerable. Washington’s offensive firepower has managed to carry the Caps to a series tie, but it is unrealistic to expect four to five goals a night. There is no magic potion or solution to be had here; the answer is to simply execute better. If they do not, just as in promising years past, determining the cause of death for Washington’s Stanley Cup hopes will be easy: a choke.
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