April 21 vs. Toronto Maple Leafs at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7
Game 5, Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. Series is even at 2-2.
There are eight first-round Stanley Cup playoff series in the National Hockey League, and it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of all of them with four or five games on any given night. But it’s difficult to fathom any of the other seven providing more entertainment, more excitement, more drama, more high-blood-pressure-ratcheting momentum swings, and more goals than the Washington-Toronto series.
Two nights after the Capitals outlasted the Maple Leafs 5-4 in Wednesday’s Game 4 in Toronto, the two teams will tangle once again back in the District in Friday night’s Game 5. This time, the series is even once again and the two teams will be scrapping for control of the best-of-seven set. One of them will move to within a win of the second round on Friday night.
All four games so far have been one-goal affairs, and Wednesday’s game is the first one that did not require overtime. When Washington opened up a 4-1 first-period lead on the Leafs in Game 4, it sure seemed like a fourth straight overtime game was a longshot bet. But if we’ve learned anything in this series, it’s that 60 minutes is a long time and both teams feature quick strike offensive capabilities.
Tom Wilson and T. J. Oshie scored twice each, Alex Ovechkin scored on Washington’s only power play of the game and Braden Holtby made 30 saves to help the Caps square the series at 2-2 with Wednesday’s win. Five of Holtby’s stops came during a two-man advantage for the Leafs early in the third period, a point at which the Leafs could have tied the tilt had they converted on both ends of the five-on-three.
“We had the 4-2 lead there,” says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom, “but [the Leafs] had the five-on-three chance there. That was a huge kill for us. I think that was a turning point for us. After that, I thought we controlled the game pretty well even if they got some lucky bounces.”
In a game the Caps had to win to avoid falling into a 3-1 ditch in the series, their best players showed up for work. The Ovechkin-Backstrom-Oshie trio scored twice at even strength and once on the power play, and they had another goal waved off for no good reason.
“Backstrom’s line was the killer,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “I thought they set the tone right from the get go, and every time they were out there they were a force. They were physical, they were hounding the puck, they were winning their battles and they were dangerous. They created a lot of opportunities for zone time. They had a lot of puck possession and they wore them down. [Ovechkin]’s shift length is down to like 38 seconds, which is unheard of for him, really. And he is really working and he’s being physical, and he is staying fresh. He is starting to take over areas of the ice where you can’t stop him.”
The stat sheet shows that the Capitals were outshot by a whopping 19-3 and out-attempted 37-8 in the third period of Wednesday’s game, and that two of those pucks got behind Holtby, enabling the Leafs to close within a goal by game’s end. Three of the Leafs’ goals on the night came on deflections, and the other came when a favorable bounce off a linesman’s body prevented a Washington clearing bid from getting down the ice and permitting the Caps to change personnel after a long shift.
Wilson was heroic for Washington as the Caps cruised to a 4-1 first period lead. With the Caps up 2-1 late in the first, he swept the Washington goal line to prevent a puck from falling over the line and tying the game after it trickled through Holtby.
Seconds later at the other end of the ice, Wilson tipped Lars Eller’s shot through Toronto goaltender Frederik Andersen to lift the Caps to a 3-1 lead, singlehandedly affecting a two-goal shift at each end of the rink.
For good measure, Wilson scored again – his third goal of the series – just over two minutes later, taking a feed from Andre Burakovsky and beating Andersen on a two-on-one rush.
After twice squandering two-goal leads and also failing to convert on a two-minute, five-on-three power play in Monday’s Game 3, Washington needed a strong rebound performance on Wednesday, and it got exactly that. Leads have been difficult to hold and difficult to build upon in this series, but in Game 4 the Caps became the first team in the series to own a three-goal lead and they also became the first team in the series to take a lead and then hold it for the remainder of the game.
“Honestly, I thought we played a pretty good 60 minutes,” says Wilson. “There are those bounces you keep seeing – off a ref or off a skate – moments that you keep seeing that are big moments that we’ve got to make sure that we tighten up. We can’t have those pucks going in after we get a 2-0 lead; we’ve got to make sure we’re focused. Those are going to happen, that’s hockey. We’ve got to have a good answer for it, and for the most part we did tonight.”
The Toronto forecheck vexed the Caps at times during the first three games of the series, but Washington cleaned up that area of its game significantly on Wednesday. It sometimes took two or three passes instead of just one, but the Caps were much smoother, crisper and more efficient at getting the puck out of their own end of the ice and moving it into the hands of their forwards.
“I just think it’s making sure that we exit clean,” says Caps defenseman Nate Schmidt, queried as to what part of Washington’s game on Wednesday will be most important to replicate for Friday’s Game 5. “I think that’s the biggest part of our game, and that’s when we get into trouble. I think our squeezes have been good on defensive zone rushes, I just think that getting our of our zone quick is the biggest part.”
Washington also showed a renewed focus on getting bodies to the net on a consistent basis, a ploy that paid dividends on Wilson’s first goal.
“In the playoffs, everything seems to collapse and shut down,” says Caps defenseman John Carlson. Just finding different ways to get it in there and to create some havoc can go a long way. In the playoffs, you see all types of goals, but a lot of them are through screens or loose change around the net.”
Through four games, neither team in this series has been able to separate itself from the other. Both teams have scored 14 goals and both teams have won two games. It’s a brand new series starting on Friday, and now it’s a best-of-three situation. Washington worked hard on Wednesday to avoid a two-game hole in the series, and both the Caps and the Leafs have showed a great deal of resilience and resolve in this series to date.
“Every series is different, obviously,” says Caps goalie Braden Holtby. “This one is completely different than most we’ve played in the past, just the way the puck is going in and the way things are happening It’s a good mental test for us, and we’ve showed our character through here, but Game 5 is going to have to be our best game.”