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Capitals won't discount Maple Leafs youth

Alex Ovechkin, Washington expecting best from Auston Matthews-led Toronto in first round

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Before Auston Matthews did it this season, the last NHL rookie to score 40 goals was Alex Ovechkin in 2005-06, when he had 52.

Now, Matthews, 19, and the Toronto Maple Leafs will take on Ovechkin, 31, and the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, beginning with Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round at Verizon Center on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; CSN, USA, CBC, TVA Sports).

Ovechkin has been impressed watching Matthews and the rest of the Maple Leafs core of impressive rookies, including forwards Mitchell Marner, William Nylander and forward Connor Brown, who helped Toronto earn the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference by going 40-28-15 with 95 points.

Matthews led all rookies with 40 goals and 69 points. Nylander (22 goals, 39 assists) and Marner (19 goals, 42 assists) tied for third in points among rookies with 61, behind only Matthews and Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets, who had 64. Brown had a solid season as well with 36 points (20 goals, 16 assists).

Video: Capitals vs Maple Leafs First Round Preview

But Matthews is the favorite to win the Calder Trophy, which Ovechkin won in 2005-06.

"He's played at a high level, obviously," Ovechkin said Tuesday. "Him, Laine, all those different guys, Nylander, they play well. So it's fun to watch."

Ovechkin claimed not to remember his first experience in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2007-08, saying, "It was a long time ago." But with 84 playoff games (41 goals, 41 assists) under his belt, Ovechkin knows well the difference in the level of play and focus in the playoffs from the regular season.

"It's the best time of the year," Ovechkin said. "You're working hard to get to this position all year, all 82 games. You fight through injuries. You fight through ups and downs. Right now, you're focused on one game only. In the regular season, you know, [it's] like 'OK, it's 82 games and everything can happen.' Right now you have to be focused today."

The Maple Leafs are expected to have at least nine players in their lineup for Game 1 who will be playing in their first NHL playoff game: Matthews, Nylander, Marner, Brown, fellow rookie forwards Zach Hyman and Kasperi Kapanen and defensemen Morgan Rielly, Connor Carrick and Martin Marincin. The Capitals, the Presidents' Trophy winners with a 55-19-8 record, and 118 points, will have one player making his playoff debut: forward Brett Connolly.

 

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That would appear to be a significant advantage for the Capitals, but they know better than to discount the Maple Leafs because of their youth.

"All I know is that young or old is in their attitude and mindset," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "They've had guys who have played the whole year now, enough to get them ready for their first playoff action."

Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik remembers being in a similar situation to the Maple Leafs with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2006-07. It was the first foray into the playoffs for many of those Penguins, who went 47-24-11 with 105 points during the regular season but lost in five games to the more-experienced Ottawa Senators in the first round of the playoffs.

"It's not the same two teams, but a lot of times when you're younger you tend to overlook or discredit the experience factor and sometimes as younger guys, you learn the hard way," Orpik said. "But these are younger guys that have experienced a lot more than some of our guys had at that age. You can draw slight comparisons, but some of these guys like Matthews are so polished when they get to the League already, it's maybe not as a big of a deal now."

Although Matthews is 19, Orpik said his game is more complete than a typical rookie's.

"Obviously, the 40 goals jump out as a rookie," Orpik said. "But I think when you look at his game versus a lot of other guys that are goal scorers, especially at young ages, a lot of guys cheat offensively. But I don't think there's any cheat in his game."

Of course, as Trotz said, Matthews has "great skill, great confidence, great ability and a good team around him, too." So the Capitals will have to be careful not to play into the young Maple Leafs' hands by getting pulled into a speed game of exchanging rushes.

The Maple Leafs had success playing that way in their first two games against the Capitals this season, winning 4-2 at Air Canada Centre on Nov. 26 and leading 4-2 after two periods before losing 6-5 in overtime on Jan. 3 at Verizon Center. The Capitals did a better job of controlling the Maple Leafs' speed and playing a more structured game in a 4-1 victory at Air Canada Centre on April 4.

"They can create stuff," Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "They can score. They make quick plays around the net. They can skate. So we're going to have to be on our toes all over the rink, but they have some dangerous people."

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