What a series! The Toronto Maple Leafs are huge underdogs, on paper, to the Washington Capitals in the first round, and not only have they undermined the Capitals' home ice advantage, but they are pushing them to the brink.
The Maple Leafs are putting up big offensive numbers against the best defensive team of the regular season. The Capitals are one of, if not the best at closing games, but have been in fits in the third periods when the ‘never say die’ boys in blue really start to press.
The series is now tied at two, but the narrative has completely changed since Game 1. It has gone from Toronto needing a perfect outing to win to Washington needing sustained pressure for 60 minutes to scrape out a victory.
A Maple Leafs series victory is now a very real possibility.
The blueprint for a Maple Leafs series victory
The boys and their youthful exuberance can pull the victory off in exciting fashion, but they will still need to respect their plan and execute. It is no longer about respecting the superior team in Washington, but the talent in their own dressing room. Here is what I think they need to do to succeed.
Pure, unadulterated speed
The Maple Leafs are one of the fastest teams in the league, and right now they are putting pressure on the Capitals' defensive-core. This needs to continue, but it has to start at the drop of the first puck.
Washington and their mental state are in question right now, so it is the perfect time to bend their resolve until it breaks. Dumping pucks in from the red line will only work if the Toronto forwards are crossing the blue line with pace. William Nylander has been good at this, dumping the puck into the offensive zone softly to allow the forechecking Zach Hyman to win the race to the puck.
Slamming the biscuit around the boards hasn't been very effective, but dumping it in the adjacent corner has yielded better results. Forechecking can only work if you can reach the puck or the puck carrier first.
Bring the pain
Mike Babcock, at his first Maple Leafs press conference, said “there's pain coming”, as recorded by The Star, and I think the Capitals should be the ones feeling it. It is unfortunate to have the physical force that is Roman Polak absent from the lineup, but the team-wide physicality needs to increase.
I have seen the physically timid Auston Matthews start to move bodies at either end of the ice, as his baptism in post-season winning continues. Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov need to be wrecking balls on every shift. Lighter players like Nylander and Mitch Marner need to rub out the opposition along the boards every time. Essentially, they need to play like it is sudden death overtime, all the time.
Better line matching
Coach Mike Babcock is a very smart man, so when I propose something that he may not be doing, it really is just a matter of opinion and looking at it in a different light.
He has, so far, tried to match up Matthews’ or Kadri's line against Nicklas Backstrom’s line. I think I like Kadri's line taking that on, as they are a more physical line, and Alex Ovechkin doesn't respond well to push back.
I would take great effort, though, to try to match Matthews with Marcus Johansson’s line, as Matthews and Nylander can out-possess and neutralize their offensive zone attack.
Then I would try to get my weakest defensive line in Bozak, James van Riemsdyk and Marner, and pair them up against the Caps' third and fourth lines, giving them more opportunity to be dangerous. Having a fourth line against the other fourth line doesn't really benefit the Maple Leafs, as Brian Boyle's line has been superior. Brian Boyle, Matt Martin, and the speed of Kasperi Kapanen have done a great job at neutralizing scoring lines.
Frederik Andersen has had very good stretches in this series and has been a very big contributor to the success in the first three games. Unfortunately, in Game 4 he may have been the weakest link when he actually needed to be the strongest. It is no knock on him and his skills, sometimes it is just not your night. When that occurs though, it is the coach's responsibility to recognize a struggling goalie before it costs the team.
Andersen is a big boy and a team guy, he knows when he doesn't have his 'A’ game flowing. If he is struggling a little bit, pull him, then stick him back in net in the very the next game. The big Dane is their guy for the next four years, but this is the playoffs, and winning is everything, he will understand. Sometimes the difficult thing is the right thing.
Close out leads
The Capitals are a desperate team, the Leafs have put a healthy fear in their ranks. Grabbing a lead early will be paramount, and maintaining that lead is just as crucial. Defensive gaps have to be super close, and the neutral zone completely clogged.
Without the puck, all the forwards need to be in full defensive mode and full counter-attack mode with the puck. All opposing scoring chances need to be squelched immediately, letting the noose get tighter and tighter as the clock counts down.
This is not original
The Pittsburgh Penguins have trod this path before and have shown the way. Washington is not a drastically different team to their unit of last year, as their weaknesses are pretty much the same. The Penguins had a young and depleted defense core as well, but they pulled it off in six games. This is doable for Toronto.
Who do you think will win this series? Let us know in the comments section below.