April 13 vs. Toronto Maple Leafs at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
TV: CSN, USA
Radio: 104.7 FM, 1500 AM and Capitals Radio 24/7
Game 1, 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round
Here we go. The Caps and the Toronto Maple Leafs open up their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series on Thursday night in the District, facing off in the postseason for the first time ever. Washington is in the postseason for the ninth time in the last 10 springs, and the Leafs are back in the playoffs after a three-year absence. Toronto is making just its second postseason appearance in the 12 seasons of the NHL's salary cap era, and the Maple Leafs are seeking their first postseason series win since 2004, when they ousted the Ottawa Senators in a six-game first-round series.
For the second straight season, Washington has finished first in the Metropolitan Division, the Eastern Conference and the NHL as a whole. Now, it seeks the postseason success that has eluded it for the better part of the last two decades. The Capitals made the only Stanley Cup final appearance of their 42-season history in the league in 1998, bowing to the Detroit Red Wings in four straight games.
This spring, anything short of a trip to the Cup final will be seen as a disappointment.
Video: Jay Beagle on the start of postseason hockey
"You have to look at the season overall and obviously be happy with it," says Caps center Jay Beagle. "It's a great group of guys in here, and it was fun to be a part of it. Now, the real deal starts."
Last season, the Caps went into the postseason with high hopes after lapping the field in the Metro, the Eastern Conference and the league. But they coasted through the last month or so of the season and weren't as sharp as they would have liked t have been once the playoffs started. The Caps started the postseason with three straight wins, but then won just three of their next nine, which is a bad recipe in the postseason. They were ousted at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, falling in overtime of Game 6 in Pittsburgh.
"I feel like we are better this year," says Caps forward Marcus Johansson. "I think everyone has improved a little bit, and that makes a big difference. We've got another year behind us, and we've learned from last year. Moving forward here, we've only got one focus. We have run into a little more adversity this year, which I think in the end is good for us. We had none last year, and when it came down to it, I feel like we weren't really prepared for that. We had some bumps this year, and I think it helped us out and made us stronger."
Video: Five-on-five will be the pillar of the Caps' success
This time around, the Caps faced stiff competition throughout the season as the Metro Division contained three of the four best teams in the league and four of the top nine. The league produced nine 100-point teams this season, and four of them are Metro denizens. This time around, the Caps are playing much closer to their ceiling than they were as the playoffs dawned in 2016.
"We are playing with more structure," says Caps defenseman Karl Alzner. "We were tinkering a lot last year, and it was just so relaxed. It ended up being a really long year for us, and we just didn't have the killer instinct that we needed to have. But I think we still found a way to turn it on pretty good in the first round.
"We're going into it different, against a different opponent, extremely hard division and conference. It's nice that we're playing well and we're structured. Guys are working hard and smart, and we're really focused on having a guy in good defensive position in the offensive zone, and that has really limited odd-man rushes, which has been a thing for us at times this year. We're seeing a lot of promising things right now."
Video: Coach Trotz talks the day before Game 1
That's true, and one of the most promising of those things is the team's play at five-on-five. The Caps permitted just 113 five-on-five goals during the regular season, fewest in the league and fewest in the league since 2013-14. Washington's plus-65 goal differential at five-on-five was easily the best in the NHL. Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs scored plenty of five-on-five goals themselves, only nine fewer than the Caps. But Toronto finished 24th in the league in five-on-five goals against.
"I think five-on-five is the most important part of any team's game," says Washington center Lars Eller. "Five-on-five is where most of the game is played. The stronger you are there, there is a good chance you're going to draw more penalties than you're going to take if you have the puck a lot and you're not chasing. Five-on-five is huge. It's one of the biggest strengths of our team, and I think it has to be one of our bigger strengths going into the playoffs."
Video: Braden Holtby on facing the Leafs in the first round
Over the final five games of the regular season, the Caps outscored their foes by a combined total of 11-3. Included in those final five games of the regular season was a 4-1 win over the Leafs in Toronto on April 4. The lone Toronto goal in that game came on a power play with 68 seconds remaining.
The Maple Leafs could have claimed a playoff spot with a win that night, but they needed until last weekend to finally nail it down, and they were the last of the 16 teams to squeeze into the bracket. Led by a trio of dynamic and creative rookie forwards, the Leafs went from dead last in the league in 2015-16 to a playoff berth this season. Toronto achieved this turnaround almost exclusively with its attack, scoring 58 more goals this season than last, and finishing fifth in the league in that department.
Rookies Auston Matthews (40 goals), William Nylander (22) and Mitch Marner (19) accounted for 81 goals in the Leafs' 82 games this season, and Matthews set rookie franchise records for most goals and points (69) by a first-year player.
"He is a guy who can really do it in all areas of the ice," says Caps defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk of Matthews. "He can beat you off the rush and he can beat you around the net. I think the majority of his goals this year were scored from within 20 feet of the net, so that shows you that he's going to the hard areas to score goals.
Video: Caps players talk a day before Game 1 vs. Toronto
"You just have to limit his time and space. It's important that you always have a guy on him, make sure that you know where his stick is and where the puck is. You have to tip your cap to him, because he doesn't quit. I think he is a very hard-working player for someone who is so skilled. He gets a lot of those goals off second chances and second efforts."
At the other end of the ice, the Leafs traded for former Anaheim goaltender Frederik Andersen, and they promptly signed him to a five-year contract. Andersen gave the Leafs steadier goaltending than at any point in recent seasons, despite playing behind a youthful group of defensemen.
"They're fast, really fast," says Beagle of the Leafs. "We just played them. They're a run and gun team, they've got a lot of speed and a lot of youth. It's going to be really exciting and it's going to be fun to play at Verizon Center in a playoff game again."
Washington has the edge in experience and in virtually every statistical category, but as we've seen so many times in the salary cap era, David can occasionally overcome Goliath.
Video: Ovechkin talks after the first playoff practice
"We just have to play our game, our style of hockey," says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. "Try to use our home ice advantage right away. They've been fighting for their spot the last six or seven games. We just have to use it to our advantage.
"Playoffs are not easy. Every shift is a hard shift, and every moment can change the game. We just have to play smart, physical and use our chances."
For a Caps team that has been waiting for another kick at the can since the middle of last May, finishing the regular season and starting the postseason with a clean slate is exhilarating.
Video: Mike and John break down the start of #CapsLeafs
"This is what we've been waiting for," says Johansson. "We've been preparing all year and all summer, since our last game last year, and this is the best part of hockey season coming up right here. It's going to be fun to get going. The hockey ramps up and everything gets a little better, a little faster and a little crazier. This is a lot of fun coming up here, and I feel like we're prepared for it."