One of the most important qualities in any NHL playoff team is depth. The chase for the Stanley Cup almost always includes dealing with injuries, and having capable players prepared to step in and step up is crucial as clubs move from round to round. But depth also matters because the league's coaches - who know the opposition has the power to zero in on and clamp down on individual players or lines - need balanced contributions throughout the lineup to maximize their chances at winning.
Depth is an area in which the Maple Leafs have seen a drastic improvement in the past year. Where once they were regularly giving opportunities to a carousel of different players and moving parts around with great frequency, this year's Leafs team has established relatively firm lines - and the production they've received from those lines is one of the main reasons Toronto is currently ahead of the Washington Capitals two games to one in their first-round playoff series.
Monday's thrilling 4-3 overtime win over the Caps was a perfect example of that balanced production. After the Leafs' fourth line of Brian Boyle, Kasperi Kapanen and Matt Martin generated two goals in the Buds' 4-3 double-OT victory in Game 2, Toronto's other lines made a colossal impact to give their team the series lead: the rookie line of centre Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Zach Hyman produced the first goal Monday and the game-tying marker that sent the contest to overtime; and players from Toronto's other two lines - centres Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak - scored the other two goals in the win.
Add to that the offence the Leafs have received from their defencemen - Morgan Rielly is tied for the team lead in points, with a goal and two assists, while Jake Gardiner has a goal and two points - and you have a Toronto squad that can hurt you at virtually any point in any game. And that's music to the ears of head coach Mike Babcock.
"I think we've gotten good contributions from each line, each night," Babcock said Tuesday at an optional practice for the team prior to Wednesday's Game 4 at Air Canada Centre. "Obviously, Boyle's (line) was a huge factor in Game 2 on the scoresheet, but I think lots of times when you're playing real well you don't necessarily score. We need everyone to go."
Video: WSH@TOR, Gm3: Nylander slips a rebound past Holtby
The game-tying goal created by the Matthews-Nylander-Hyman line with 40 seconds left in the second period Monday illustrated how the season-long familiarity of the three players led to them scoring. Hyman followed his own dump-in of the puck into Washington's zone, separated the puck from Capitals blueliner Brooks Orpik along the end boards, and it rolled out to Matthews, who made a terrific pass to Nylander in front of goalie Brayden Holtby. Nylander then knocked in his own rebound, and the Leafs were tied at three goals apiece.
In sum, Hyman's workhorse nature began the scoring play, and the incredible creative skills of Matthews and Nylander finished it. That's been the key to the success of the line throughout the year, and shows why Babcock continues to have such confidence in it.
"[Matthews] is an elite skill guy and can play with and without the puck against anybody," Babcock said. "Hyman comes every day, he's just as dependable as there ever is with more energy than anybody, I think, in the League. Great forechecker, makes great passes from under the goal line. Willy, I mean, Willy can pass it, he can skate, he can shoot it, he can do a lot of different things. They've been a good line for us. They're a better line for us because we've got [Kadri] and we've got [Bozak]. That's what's good about having three centres like that is they can pick each other up. Obviously, now that we have Boyle, we're a much deeper team."
All three games in the series have gone to at least one overtime period, so Toronto's depth will almost certainly continue to play a key role in the way the clash with the Capitals concludes. The Leafs have a golden opportunity to take a 3-1 series stranglehold with a win on Wednesday, but all hands will have to be on deck, and all of Toronto's players and coaches expect the veteran Caps group to push back hard the rest of the way.
"(We can't be) too content with where we are," Gardiner said Tuesday. "Obviously, we're up in the series, but there's still a lot of work to be done. They're a heck of a team and I'm sure they're going to be fighting right back into it if they can."
"I just think each game in the series you have to elevate your play and you have to get better on each off-day if you're going to have success the next game," Babcock added. "What won you last game won't be good enough. You've got to find a way to step up.