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Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski / USA TODAY Sports

Step Right Up and Beat the Caps

We’re all aware the Leafs just drew the most difficult first round opponent of the whole bunch. Presidents’ Trophy winners, plus-81 goal differential, top three puck-possession team; The Capitals are the best team in the league after 82 games of regular season hockey. It’s a “David vs. Goliath” matchup where one team is itching to finally take home the mug, while little David is just happy to be here, supposedly. But obviously there have been plenty of instances where things didn’t play out well for heavy favourites, and we know better than to write off the underdog, especially in the NHL where a bounce or two can flip a series. This Capitals team knows all about that.

So let’s do this, shall we? Let’s try to talk ourselves into Toronto knocking off the Washington Capitals in the first round. According to many out there, the Caps have every advantage in this series. We’ll see how big those gaps really are.

Odds

First off, we have to recognize that the Capitals are the Cup favourites as of today. MoneyPuck.com has them at 14% to win the whole thing, with the Bruins and Minnesota not too far behind. But what’s funny is that Washington isn’t the team most likely to make the second round, because they drew the Leafs – a not-so-weak opponent to start things off.

According to the MoneyPuck model, the gap between the Capitals and Leafs is smaller than that of Boston/Ottawa or Montreal/New York. So while Toronto is an underdog, they’re not the biggest long-shot in these opening eight series, or even within their own conference.

Team Make 2nd Round Make 3rd Round Make Final Win Cup
Boston Bruins 68.60% 39.90% 21.70% 12.80%
Montreal Canadiens 65.10% 35.10% 17.70% 9.40%
Washington Capitals 63.50% 39.90% 23.50% 14%
Pittsburgh Penguins 60.70% 27.90% 14.10% 7.30%
Columbus Blue Jackets 39.30% 14.10% 5.70% 2.40%
Toronto Maple Leafs 36.50% 18.10% 8.80% 4.40%
New York Rangers 34.90% 13% 4.60% 1.80%
Ottawa Senators 31.40% 12% 4% 1.50%

Leafs win this series 1/3 of the time. I’ll take that.

Driving Play

You might remember that when the Leafs last made the playoffs – in 2013 – they were an absolutely dreadful team. They basically nabbed a playoff spot in a lockout-shortened schedule and didn’t have enough time to blow it down the stretch. That team was a defensive nightmare and essentially spent all season pinned in their own zone, playing Carlyle brand hockey. But they somehow managed to push the Bruins, one of the strongest puck-possession teams in the league, all the way to an extra frame in game seven. It’s the playoffs, weird shit happens.

I think the gap between the Leafs and Caps this season is tighter than those 2013 Leafs/Bruins teams. Toronto finished this 2016-17 season as the NHL’s sixth best team in score-adjusted Corsi (51.3%) while Washington sits third (53.0%). Obviously Corsi isn’t everything, but there isn’t anything to suggest Toronto should get totally smothered in this series.

Head-to-Head

The season head-to-head series doesn’t really indicate much when it comes to playoff match-ups, but it’s still worth looking into. I mean, if the Leafs had been absolutely throttled by the Caps in all their showdowns this season, it would probably instill a good amount of worry, but that isn’t really the case.

The points split this year was 4 to 3 for the Capitals through three games, but two games featured a rested team facing another on the latter half of a back-to-back. The rested team won both times. The only game where both teams were rested was that 6-5 overtime thriller in Washington back on January 3rd.

Pure Talent

Perhaps the first thing that popped into your head when it was confirmed Washington would be the Leafs’ opponent was “Oh shit, Ovechkin”, which is a natural reaction. I had the same one. But while Ovie is still clearly one of the biggest offensive threats in the entire league, Toronto happens to have a few of their own – most notably that rookie who just finished second only to Crosby for the Rocket Richard trophy.

Here’s a quick rundown of the top goal-scorers from these two clubs going into this series.

ATOI G G/60
Auston Matthews 17.3 40 1.7
Alex Ovechkin 17.9 33 1.3
TJ Oshie 17.3 33 1.7
Nazem Kadri 16.4 32 1.4
James van Riemsdyk 15.5 29 1.4
Justin Williams 15.1 24 1.2
Marcus Johansson 16.6 24 1.1
Nicklas Backstrom 17.8 22 0.9
William Nylander 15.7 22 1
Connor Brown 16 20 1

Now that’s a quick and dirty list, but it just shows that there’s plenty of shooting talent on each side and the Caps aren’t the only team with game-breakers in their lineup. If anything, Toronto arguably has the most dangerous player in the series from a pure scoring standpoint.

Adding to that, the powerplay is where that talent could show up in a big way. Going into the series, the Leafs (23.8%) and Caps (23.1%) rank 2nd and 4th respectively in converting on the PP.

In Net

I don’t want to get into goaltending too much, only to say Holtby has historically been better than Andersen, so Washington will have an edge there going in. With that said, Andersen is still above average and sometimes looks to be among the league’s best. There have been some stretches this season where he’s been the difference and stolen games.

Numbers-wise, Holtby finished the season with a 0.925-sv% in 63 games (3rd among 32 goalies with 40+ starts) while Andersen ended with 0.918 through 66 (13th under the same criteria). Both guys were clear workhorses for their respective clubs. Holtby also had a 0.937 even-strength sv% to Andersen’s 0.927.

Again, this is an area where the Leafs are overmatched, but it isn’t like they’re going into this thing with a sieve between the pipes.

Close-out

Look, the Leafs are a long-shot here. It’s their first full-season playoff appearance since 2004, and it’s a group of rookies facing a mostly-polished team that has been tinkering every which way to finally get a Cup in their contention window. Most folks are picking the Capitals to close this out in 5 games, and it’s hard to argue with that.

But this Leafs team isn’t a pushover. I can’t believe I’m quoting Jim Hughson here, but he made a nice comment the other day when he pointed out the Leafs aren’t a “good young team”, they’re just a good team. And with basically every bit of pressure being placed on the Caps, who are supposedly poised to finally get past the Penguins and come out of the east, there could be a panic scenario if the Leafs get off to a hot start in this one after this much-needed three day rest.

  • m@

    I ain’t ascared of no Washington Capitals… what have they ever done?

    And for a young team learning what the NHL playoffs are… why not go against the top seed?

    I like it!

    Good read Fancey…

  • lukewarmwater

    Wow, wow, I tried to post two comments in a row as I wanted to get a few things off my concave chest. So I will try a third time as HI THERE GOT THROUGH BUT THE TWO OTHER POSTINGS DIDN’T.

  • lukewarmwater

    Okay last time, First of all Ryan thank you for edifying, elucidating and educating me that CORSI is everything man. I think the Capitals used their final match up against the leafs as a statement game as they simply stapled the smaller leafs into the boards early in the game. The Capitals are one strong, talented in every facet of the game team that is obviously a squad on a mission as they try to eliminate the choke title they have obtained over the years.
    No doubt the same philosophy of the last meeting will be applied as poor Jake Gardiner can already envision big Washington forwards bearing down on him. As people say in general this will be a learning experience for this squad. However I hope and pray that the leafs don’t go through what a leaf team in transition went through against a rising, powerful and big, bad Bruin team led by Orr and Esposito who pasted the leafs by scores of 6 to 0 and 10 to 0. The mercy law should have been implied.
    However I think this group of oh sooo talented youngsters are not only physically skilled but also show maturity beyond their 19 and 20 years on planet earth. That being the case, they likely will get beat but will make a contest out of it.
    In the off season Babcock and company have two major chores. The first being to over haul the defence and add tougness there and on the forward line. Secondly they must avoid the Avalanche syndrome which saw a young Colorado squad with all kinds of potential explode into obscurity this season. But again I think there is far too much talent and maturity amongst this group of youngsters to happen.
    Again I want to thank the leaf management and players for a wonderful entertaining season. I wish them all the luck in the world in the playoffs and against the Capitals they will indeed need a good doze of luck. Go leafs Go.

  • MartinPolak

    You make a good point. I’m waiting for the man jeffler to come out and say the leafs are beating the capitals before committing to this. The guy is so under rated by you guys on twitter. No one is better at covering the leafs

  • STAN

    As fast and creative as the Leafs are, I just can’t see this going more than 5 games. Why? A very wobbly defensive system (or lack thereof). it’s not just the D-men who are manhandled by opposing forwards, too many of the forwards stop skating and pursuing the puck behind their own blueline, instead setting up in PK-style defensive positions. Still, Babcock and his staff have a few days to watch video and come up with a game plan to again thwart the long-underachieving Capitals.

  • Stan Smith

    One thing not factored in the numbers is the fact that the Caps have always seemed to disappoint in the playoffs. If the Leafs can win a game or two early they could get inside the Caps’ heads. There is always a first round upset in the playoffs. I don’t see why it can’t be this series.

    Another note: I’m surprised to see that Boston is one of the favourites to make the finals. Isn’t this the same Boston team the Leafs tied in the standings? As for the Sens, people have been underestimating them all season long. I could just as easily see them knock the Bruins out in round one.

    • Gary Empey

      All year long the articles and a lot of comments have been disparaging to Ottawa. After 82 games they ended up 3 points away from 1st in the Atlantic Division. Common sense should tell you Ottawa is a lot better than most people t‌hink.

  • jimithy

    There’s no reason the Leafs can’t go all the way. They did it in 1967. With a depleted lineup. That was fifty years ago. April 18 1967 the Leafs beat Chicago 3-1 to take the series in 6, then beat Montreal May 2 1967 to win the Cup again in 6. Fifty years ago the Cup stood in our way.

    • lukewarmwater

      How well I remember that final game against the over confident Habs. The leafs skated cirlcles around them and then the big captain, the Chief ( Can I say that in 2017 ) as that was his nickname George Armstrong went through the whole Canadians team and put that old biscuit in the top corner for the third goal. Btw the freaking loser Habs were so confident that their management had moved all the Hab propaganda into the Stanley cup building for Expo 67. Well Punch Imlach carrying the Stanley cup entered that room and in the immortal words of Jack Armstrong, GET THAT GARBAGE OUT OF HERE. But nice try Miller.

  • Gary Empey

    If we were heading into these playoffs healthy, then I could see the possibility of an upset or even making this a long hard fought series. With Andersen and Zaitsev out with concussions, Polak with a knee injury, the Leafs do not have enough defensive depth to compete with the Caps. Ryan’s article doesn’t mention backend. Orlov, Niskanen, Orpik, Shattenkirk, Alzner, and Schmidt, are all solid D-men.

  • al m

    We’ll be loose. Nothing to lose, nothing to prove. Underdog is just fine with me. We’ll be well prepared, and don’t forget a group of these guys went deep in the playoffs in the AHL last year.

  • Foximus

    I said the Caps in 6. This Caps team has been built for this. I realize history dictates otherwise but this is a DEEP team. I’m hoping the Leafs win a couple of games, keep the other games close and learn some valuable playoff lessons. I would have picked the Leafs to beat the Bruins, go to game 7 with the Sens. But these Caps are a tall order