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.
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|
|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%|
Leafs win this series 1/3 of the time. I’ll take that.
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.
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.
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.
|James van Riemsdyk||15.5||29||1.4|
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.
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.
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.