We've got playoff weather here in the District, so it's fitting that we've got a Stanley Cup playoff game here in the District tonight, too. The Capitals and the Toronto Maple Leafs tangle on F St. tonight in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Series.
The Caps finished the season with the league's best record, and the Leafs were the last of the 16 playoff teams to secure their spot in the hallowed tournament. But all of the numbers are reset to zero at the start of the playoffs. What happened over 82 games from October to April determines only a team's seeding in the bracket and how many home games it gets, nothing more.
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Sixteen teams are trying to win the 16 games needed to hoist the Stanley Cup in 2017. Only one of them will succeed. The Caps are hoping this is the year they finally play up to their own expectations, ability and potential at this time of year, but they're facing a dynamic Toronto team that's fairly teeming with offensive weapons.
"I don't think we're going to change a whole lot," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "In the postseason [we'll do] what we did all year. We'll let players play. This is their time. This is the time that they have fun, and this is the time that guys make names for themselves."
Game 1 is tonight, and the two teams will play every other day until one of them wins four times. Three days of resting, practicing and talking to the media are in the rear view for both the Capitals and the Maple Leafs, and puck drop is now mere hours away.
Video: Barry Trotz talks before Game 1 against the Leafs
Five-on-Five Alive - The Caps and the Leafs were both top five power play teams during the regular season, and both were also top 10 penalty killing teams in the league. Both teams also ranked among the league's top five in five-on-five goals scored, with the Leafs improving from 29th in the league in five-on-five goals in 2015-16 to fifth in 2016-17.
But Washington permitted just 113 five-on-five goals during the regular season, the lowest total of any team in the league since 2013-14. The Leafs ranked 24th in the league in five-on-five goals against during the regular season.
A dearth of five-on-five scoring last spring was one of the primary reasons for Washington's early exit from the playoffs. Five-on-five play was even more of a strength for the Caps in 2016-17 than it was in 2015-16, and it has to be a strength in the playoffs, too, particularly in this opening round series against the Leafs.
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"The five-on-five is obviously our backbone and something that we depend on to get it done on any given night," says Caps right wing Tom Wilson. "I think the Caps have always had a special power play. They've always had really good and talented forwards that could snap it around and make other teams pay. And obviously, the last couple of years we've had a good penalty kill, so our special teams have been great.
"But that's usually the norm around the league; when you get the other team's best players on the ice, they can usually make things happen. We always want to be even strength. We've found good comfort in that. We have had good success over the entire year playing at five-on-five and just letting our depth take over. You don't want to give an opponent an opportunity with an extra man."
Facing a talented and creative group of Toronto forwards - but a group with little to no Stanley Cup playoff experience - you can expect the Caps to do their level best to show the Leafs a miserable time in their own end of the ice. For Washington, rolling four lines and investing early in the game and in the series in physicality and a strong forecheck, should pay some dividends later on.
Video: Ex-Leaf Daniel Winnik on facing Toronto in Game 1
"It's something you want to do in a series," says Washington winger Daniel Winnik, "but at the same time, I don't think you want to take away from getting the puck if you can than just getting a hit for the sake of a hit, but in terms of five-on-five play, it's a key to being successful. It's why we were so successful all season and our defensive game has really improved since last season, and it's something we've got to carry into the postseason."
Early last week, the Caps earned a 4-1 win over the Leafs in Toronto. Caps captain Alex Ovechkin made a big hit on Leafs defenseman Nikita Zaitsev on the game's first shift that night, and several Caps noted afterwards that that first shift helped to set a tone for Washington that night.
"I think we figured that out the last game we played [against] them, that we could play like that," says Caps goaltender Braden Holtby. "That first period that we played against the Leafs was phenomenal. Once we stopped doing that a bit throughout the game, they got a little momentum back. So I think that was a good sign to show us what we have to do to have success against them. Ovi and Tom [Wilson] and other guys setting a tone on the forecheck and everything starts below their goal line out for our team. We realize that and we've been really good at it this year. Now, it's about executing.
Video: Braden Holtby on facing the Leafs in the first round
"[The Maple Leafs'] identity is that speed/skill game, and we're going to find out the ways to push our game instead of theirs. Experience only helps if you use it in the right way, and hopefully we do."
60-Point Freshman - In Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner, Toronto features a trio of rookies each of whom attained the 60-point plateau for the Leafs in his first season in the league. While there have been a number of dynamic rookie duos on various NHL teams over the years, this season marks just the second time in league history that one team has three rookies with 60 or more points.
Back in 1980-81, the Quebec Nordiques featured two of the three Stastny brothers - Anton and Peter - and Dale Hunter, with all three attaining the 60-point level.
Looking back at some of the duos of rookies on the same team over the years, many of them had a Hall of Famers among the twosome. The 1980-81 Chicago Blackhawks had Denis Savard and Darryl Sutter. The 1981-82 Winnipeg Jets had Dale Hawerchuk and Paul MacLean. The 1983-84 Detroit Red Wings had Steve Yzerman and Kelly Kisio. The '86-87 Los Angeles Kings had Luc Robitaille and Jimmy Carson. The 1988-89 New York Rangers had Tony Granato and Brian Leetch. The '92-93 Jets had Teemu Selanne and Alexei Zhamnov.
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Locally, the '79-80 Capitals had Mike Gartner and Bengt Gustafsson, and the '81-82 Caps had one of the few 60-point duos that did not produce an eventual Hall of Famer, Bobby Carpenter and Chris Valentine.
History being history, it's a fair bet that one or more of Matthews, Nylander and Marner will go on to forge a Hall of Fame career.
In The Nets - Five years and one day after he made his NHL playoff debut in a 1-0 overtime loss to the Bruins in Boston, Holtby will make his 47th career start in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Holtby's playoff debut those five years ago offered a fair amount of foreshadowing as to how his postseason career would play out.
Despite a 1.87 career GAA and .937 save pct. in those previous 46 starts, and despite permitting two or fewer goals against in 31 of those 46 starts, Holtby owns a 22-24 career record in the postseason. That's primarily because his teammates have managed to score as many as three goals for him in only 16 of those 46 starts.
Holtby is 20-11 in Stanley Cup playoff games in which he permits two or fewer goals. As a team this season, Washington was 42-3-7 when surrendering two or fewer goals. The hope is obviously that Holtby continues his consistently stellar postseason play, and that he also receives more consistent offensive support in front of him.
At the other end of the ice, the Capitals will face Frederik Andersen. Andersen won 33 games for Toronto in his first season with the Leafs, and he carries a fairly impressive postseason track record that he achieved over the last three springs while backstopping the Anaheim Ducks.
In 28 career playoff starts, Andersen is 17-9 with a pair of shutouts, a 2.34 GAA and a .916 save pct. He started five games for Anaheim last spring, going 3-2 with a 1.41 GAA and a .947 save pct.
Andersen has surrendered two or fewer goals against in 17 of those 28 career playoff starts, including each of his last five games.
All Lined Up - Here is how we expect the Capitals and the Maple Leafs to look when they take the ice for Game 1 of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series on Thursday night. Caps defenseman John Carlson missed the final four games of the regular season with a lower body injury. He will take warm-up prior to Game 1, and then a decision will be made as to his availablility. If he's unable to go, expect to see Nate Schmidt in the lineup in his place.
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
90-Johansson, 92-Juznetsov, 14-Williams
10-Connolly, 20-Eller, 65-Burakovsky
26-Winnik, 83-Beagle, 43-Wilson
11-Hyman, 34-Matthews, 29-Nylander
47-Komarov, 43-Kadri, 12-Brown
25-van Riemsdyk, 42-Bozak, 16-Marner
15-Martin, 24-Boyle, 28-Kapanen
19-Lupul (sports hernia surgery)
22-Zaitsev (upper body)
23-Fehr (upper body)