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5 Keys: Maple Leafs at Capitals, Game 1

Return of top defenseman John Carlson boosts Washington; Toronto wants to play fast

by Katie Brown / Correspondent

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Capitals and the Toronto Maple Leafs will play Game 1 of their Eastern Conference First Round series at Verizon Center on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; USA, CBC, TVA Sports, CSN-DC).

It's the first time the teams have met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Washington, coming off its second straight Presidents' Trophy-winning season, is determined to make a deep playoff run. Toronto is making its first playoff appearance since 2013.

Here are 5 keys for Game 1:

1.John Carlson's return

Carlson missed Washington's final four regular-season games with a lower-body injury. But he skated with usual partner Karl Alzner at practice Wednesday and is expected to play in Game 1.

His return should give Washington a boost in all aspects of the game. Carlson led the Capitals in average ice time during the regular season (22:43) and finished with 37 points (nine goals, 28 assists) in 72 games. He plays on the power play and kills penalties.

The Capitals have plenty of depth on defense, and Nate Schmidt did a good job filling in while Carlson was out. But the return of a top-pair defenseman can only make Washington better.

Video: WSH@COL: Carlson finishes rush for early PPG


2. Defuse Washington's power play

The Capitals were fourth in the NHL in power-play percentage (23.1 percent) and tied for fourth in goals (57) during the regular season. Washington's best power-play weapon is Alex Ovechkin's one-timer from the left circle. He scored 17 of his 33 goals on the power play, tying him for the NHL lead with Brayden Schenn of the Philadelphia Flyers and Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Most of those 17 goals came on one-timers.

The arrival of defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk from the St. Louis Blues in a trade on Feb. 27 has given Washington more ways to attack. Shattenkirk is an excellent puck distributor who has a big shot from the blue line. Center Nicklas Backstrom led Washington with 35 power-play points (eight goals, 27 assists).

Toronto's penalty-killers finished 10th in the NHL (82.5 percent) but allowed opponents the 12th-most power plays (251). The best way for Toronto to put a lid on Washington's power play is to stay out of the penalty box.

Video: WSH@TOR: Shattenkirk nets PPG for first as a Capital

3. Nikita Zaitsev's absence

Maple Leafs defenseman Nikita Zaitsev is out for Game 1 after sustaining an upper-body injury in Toronto's regular-season finale, a 3-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday. Martin Marincin will dress in his place. Zaitsev was second on the Maple Leafs in average ice time (22:01), and saw regular time on the penalty kill (1:43) and power play (2:00). He was Toronto's second-leading scorer on defense (36 points; four goals, 32 assists), so the Maple Leafs will have to compensate for his absence in all areas of the game. The absence of Zaitsev has forced coach Mike Babcock to shuffle his pairings, but defenseman Morgan Rielly isn't worried. "I think we'll be fine," he said. "We're all used to playing with one another, we're very comfortable playing with whoever our partner is that game so I don't think it's going to be an issue at all."

Video: TOR@LAK: Zaitsev beats Quick through traffic in front


4. Control the tempo

Center Auston Matthews scored 40 goals for the Maple Leafs and is of one three Toronto rookies with 60 or more points. Toronto's speed and skill means the Capitals have to be physical and force the Maple Leafs to play at their pace, rather than play run-and-gun hockey. The Capitals and Maple Leafs each averaged more than three goals per game, but Washington allowed 177 goals to 234 for Toronto. "We need to come out hard," Backstrom said. "We have to play our best. We stay on top of our D and we stay aggressive, I think, that's what we got to do against a team like that. They're very high-skilled and they're a young team, so you've got to make sure you're physical."

Video: TOR@BUF: Matthews scores to break two rookie records


5. Youth vs. experience

Washington has 1,017 combined games of playoff experience compared to Toronto's 292. The Maple Leafs have nine players, including Matthews, making their playoff debut; the Capitals have one (forward Brett Connolly). That edge in experience should be an advantage for Washington, which is trying to get past the second round for the first time since 1998. "They're a team who has a lot of youth, they have a lot of energy and we have to make sure we're ready for that," Shattenkirk said.

Video: WSH@MIN: Ovi erupts in Minny for 17th career hatty


Maple Leafs projected lineup

James van Riemsdyk -- Tyler Bozak -- Mitchell Marner

Leo Komarov -- Nazem Kadri -- Connor Brown

Zach Hyman -- Auston Matthews -- William Nylander

Matt Martin -- Brian Boyle -- Kasperi Kapanen

Matt Hunwick -- Morgan Rielly

Jake Gardiner -- Roman Polak

Martin Marincin -- Connor Carrick

Frederik Andersen

Curtis McElhinney

Scratched: Alexey Marchenko, Ben Smith, Josh Leivo

Injured: Eric Fehr (hand/arm), Nikita Soshnikov (undisclosed), Nikita Zaitsev (upper body)


Capitals projected lineup

Alex Ovechkin -- Nicklas Backstrom -- T.J. Oshie

Marcus Johansson -- Evgeny Kuznetsov -- Justin Williams

Brett Connolly -- Lars Eller -- Andre Burakovsky

Daniel Winnik -- Jay Beagle -- Tom Wilson

Karl Alzner -- John Carlson

Dmitry Orlov -- Matt Niskanen

Brooks Orpik -- Kevin Shattenkirk

Braden Holtby

Philipp Grubauer

Scratched: Taylor Chorney, Paul Carey, Nate Schmidt

Injured: None


Status report

Andersen will start in after missing Toronto's last regular-season game. Fehr skated Thursday for the first time since sustaining a hand injury on March 22. Zaitsev is day-to-day. …Connolly returns after missing two games with an illness.


Who's hot

Matthews has 14 points (nine goals, five assists) in his past 13 games. Van Riemsdyk has seven points (six goals, one assist) in seven games. ... Johansson has 12 points (two goals, 10 assists) in his past 10 games. Williams has five points (two goals, three assists) during a three-game point streak. Ovechkin has eight points (four goals, four assists) in his past nine games.

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