First-round preview: Washington Capitals vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

The Washington Capitals are the most intellectually challenging team in the playoffs to describe. They seem to embrace a dual existence, from their best player to their team performance. Unnaturally gifted but eternally flawed. Incredibly successful, but not when it counts.

Alexander Ovechkin is arguably the greatest goal scorer of all time, yet he has never reached the conference finals. When you are a three-time Hart Trophy winner and you can’t even make the final four of the league, questions are raised. Ovechkin should be heralded as perhaps the best player of his generation, but his team’s failures thrust him into a weird state of purgatory. He is undeniably a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but if he doesn’t reach a Cup, it will follow him for eternity and keep him at a distance from Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby, and the best of the best.

Early in his career, Ovechkin was pilloried for being selfish. He was branded a one-way player who was too reliant on the power play for offense. But when coach Dale Hunter stewarded the team in 2012 and expected No. 8 to play his style of gritty to win, he did. When coach Adam Oates badly misused Ovechkin, and stones were hurled at the prolific goal scorer for registering less than his usual astronomical numbers, Ovechkin didn’t protest. Under current coach Barry Trotz, Ovechkin has become a much better possession player and his plus/minus has skyrocketed. The cauldron of anger that surrounds Ovechkin for underachieving has cooled as Trotz has heaped praise on him and the two have been consonant.

While the Ovechkin rebukes at their height were too intense, you do have to find some level of fault in him as a hockey player. Significant NHL achievement is advanced through a team game, but the currents of success flow through the best player. There have been postseason performances where Ovechkin has disappointed and deserved to be castigated. And as the Capitals recalibrate and tinker with their roster full of valuable players, the levels of scrutiny will and should rise.

The Capitals find themselves on the same side of the postseason bracket as their nemesis, the Pittsburgh Penguins. But the Penguins won the Cup last year! Their returning to the final is virtually impossible because of the mileage that accumulates, along with the need for equal or more puck luck. The Capitals have fresh legs and the best depth of any team in the NHL.

There is no one even in the same area code as the Capitals in terms of high quality talent. They have twelve players (counting Kevin Shattenkirk) with over 30 points. From a skating, playmaking, and shooting perspective, no one can touch them. Even the possession metrics, not a friend to the Capitals in years past, signal that they are elite at controlling shot attempts.

Against the Penguins last year, the bottom of the ice evaporated as the Capitals could not purchase a shot attempt because they were losing races to pucks and failing in the battles along the wall. The high cycle, usually a friend, became a cry for help. The puck orbited above the higher reaches of the top of the circle, but any attempt to transfer the puck into a shooting or passing lane was denied by an active stick. Worse yet, they couldn’t stop defending as the Penguins retrieved and recovered in an endless loop, fatiguing the centers and defensemen and defanging the rush attack. When the puck-carrier powered up ice, he would find himself alone in the wilderness; his teammates trundled over toward the boards the first opportunity they could get to give their weary legs a rest.

Almost all of these problems won’t exist against the Maple Leafs. Toronto can’t defend the Capitals’ speed, and forwards and defensemen will be able to spring into the attack with impunity. The high cycle will thrive, and avenues to the backdoor and space below the circles will be susceptible to penetrate. The Maple Leafs beat teams with their speed and depth. The Capitals are undeniably deeper, and even if they are a little slower, their significant edge in puck skills quashes the Leafs’ speed advantage because that advantage is a means for them to control the possession game.

With Trotz as the coach and the Capitals the more veteran team, it will be interesting to see if Washington tries to use brawn and overpower the Maple Leafs. Toronto’s Mitch Marner and William Nylander are agile but slight, and it seems very likely defensemen Brooks Orpik, John Carlson, and maybe even Shattenkirk will try to browbeat the young and restless.

That won’t work against generational talent and American superhero Auston Matthews. His ability to perform difficult tasks at high speed is the formula for what makes him a great player. Put a smaller player on Matthews and he’ll overwhelm him with his size and power and get to the net with ease. Put a bigger defender on Matthews and he’ll blow past him with his finesse and divinity.

When Matthews receives the puck, he smacks it past the goalie in stride or he can spin away from coverage and fire a pass to a teammate. He can change speeds and peel away from coverage seamlessly. His knack for finding the puck in traffic and blasting a shot through chaos is otherworldly. Should the Capitals overload on him? Rough him up? It’s worth trying. It probably won’t work, but that doesn’t necessarily matter.

What matters is that the Capitals’ transition defense is persistent and hostile on Toronto’s forwards and mobile defensemen, and that the forwards offer a lending hand in their own zone on breakouts. If the Capitals can escape the Leafs’ forecheck and shutter their transition attack, the Capitals will win with ease, because Toronto sure as hell can’t defend Washington’s firepower.

The shadowy history that haunts the Capitals likely won’t rear its head in this series. This should be a track meet with a million shot attempts. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t a good forum for developing proper habits and tendencies for their matchup against the Penguins in the next round.

Capitals in six

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