It’s been a while since the last time playoff hockey was played in Toronto. It’s a totally different type of game when compared to the regular season. Everything is intensified and pushed to another level. Not only is the hockey a step up from the regular season, but so too is the pressure to succeed. Before the series started all the hockey pundits talked about how it would come down to the inexperience of the Toronto Maple Leafs against the seasoned Washington Capitals.
The lack of experience and number of rookies on the Leafs was brought up constantly in regards to the playoffs. That’s turned out to be a non-factor in the series so far. The Capitals were expected to come into the series and hammer out four easy wins. And, with what has been a continuing trend, the Leafs proved their doubters wrong. In that article, which was before Game 1, I talked about how this series would be much closer than most would think.
Barry Trotz on Leafs vs. Caps: "It's a lot closer match than people let on. It's not David vs. Goliath."
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) April 18, 2017
It seemed silly and irrational when looking at the matchup on paper, but after digging deeper into each team it was clear that the Leafs would have a chance and the Capitals would have a challenge. With all the questions about how the Leafs would handle the pressures of the playoffs it’s obvious that they’re thriving.
A Handful for the Capitals
With the Leafs being up in the series 2-1 it’s become clear that the Leafs are a handful for the Capitals. That youth that many saw as a weakness has been a point of strength. The Capitals aren’t a slow team by any means, but they sure look like one compared to the Leafs.
All four of the Leafs lines have given the Capitals trouble at one point in this series with the most prominent being Auston Matthews’ line — the Capitals just haven’t found an answer to the forecheck of that line. In Game 1 they caused the Caps defense to give up the puck easily and forced them to make bad passes, which resulted in multiple interceptions.
Zach Hyman’s dogged determination and hustle has been a big advantage for the Leafs so far. Although there have been calls to remove Hyman from Matthews’ line all season due to his lack of offense, it’s now obvious that he brings something else to the line.
William Nylander’s goal in Game 3 is a perfect example of what Hyman does to create offense for this line. Hyman dumps and chases the puck behind the Capitals net, which draws in two Washington players. Hyman wins the puck battle and gets it out to the open Matthews. With two players on Hyman this leaves Nylander all alone in front of the net.
Hyman has been fantastic in the playoffs. He’s been instrumental on the forecheck and confining the Capitals to their own end for stretches of play. His work ethic and seemingly endless amount of energy was clear in the double overtime in Game 2. This is a player that is an unsung hero for the Leafs and a thorn in the Capitals’ side.
All of the Leafs’ lines have been relentless on the forecheck and have used their speed to put pressure on the Capitals. The Matthews’ line was the most important to look at, but every line has done the same thing.
A Seed of Doubt
Probably the thing that the Leafs have done best, so far this series, is plant the seed of doubt in the Capitals’ minds.
There is an idea in sports that you play to the calibre of your opponent and this has been true all series for the Leafs. This has been, without a doubt, the best hockey they’ve played all year. With two wins under their belt, the question isn’t if they can keep the series close — it’s whether they can win the series and send the Capitals packing in the first round.
Now before you think it — yes, it’s only Game 3 and yes, the Capitals could very easily retake control over this series. But in the playoffs there is a degree of mind games played. The Capitals haven’t made it past the second round of the playoffs during Alexander Ovechkin’s time in Washington and that pressure is starting to take its toll.
In Game 1 and 2 the Leafs lost a lead and headed into overtime, splitting the games in Washington. In Game 3 it looked like the Capitals had finally woken up with a 3-1 lead, but the Leafs battled back and won it in overtime. They’ve shown that they’re the real deal and that it isn’t because of bad bounces or luck.
Nazem Kadri: "This isn't pressure. This is fun for us."
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) April 18, 2017
The Leafs have shown that they can survive and thrive under the pressures and demands of the playoffs. The question for the rest of the series isn’t whether the Leafs can play under pressure, but whether the Capitals can overcome their pressure to perform in the playoffs.
Toronto Maple Leafs contributor for The Hockey Writers.
I’ve been a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs since I was a kid and have always had an interest in writing. At The Hockey Writers, I get to enjoy both of my passions as well as writing about small convoluted details in player contracts and stats.