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Round 1

Capitals vs. Maple Leafs playoff preview

Washington out to avoid another early exit; Auston Matthews powers Toronto

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

Washington Capitals (M1) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (WC2) 

Season series: Washington 2-1-0 

Last playoff meeting: None


[RELATED: Capitals-Maple Leafs coverage | Komarov is Maple Leafs' X-factor | Holtby, Capitals won't look back | Why Maple Leafs will win Cup]


How they got here 

The Washington Capitals, who won the Metropolitan Division and Presidents' Trophy with 118 points (55-19-8), face the upstart Toronto Maple Leafs, who captured the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference with 95 points (40-27-15). 

The best-of-7 Eastern Conference First Round series begins at Verizon Center on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; USA, CBC, TVA Sports).

The Maple Leafs are appearing in the postseason for the first time since 2012-13, second since 2003-04. The Capitals have won the Presidents' Trophy three times in the past eight seasons (2009-10, 2015-16, 2016-17) but have not advanced past the second round of the playoffs since making their lone Stanley Cup Final appearance, in 1998.

Video: Capitals vs Maple Leafs First Round Preview


5 storylines 

Rookie sensation: Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews, 19, established himself as a Calder Trophy favorite in his NHL debut by scoring four goals against the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 12. He went on to become the fourth rookie in League history to score 40 goals in a season before his 20th birthday, joining Dale Hawerchuk, Sylvain Turgeon and Mario Lemieux. The spotlight will be brighter in the playoffs, but he has responded to every challenge so far.

Alex Ovechkin peaking: Although Ovechkin's 33 goals were his fewest in a full season since 2010-11, when he had 32, the Capitals forward has elevated his play down the stretch. He had 14 points (six goals, eight assists) in the final 15 regular-season games and averaged 4.6 shots on goal per game over the past 18 games after averaging 3.6 in the first 64. To keep Ovechkin fresh for the playoffs, coach Barry Trotz trimmed his ice time from 20:18 per game last season to 18:21 per game this season. 

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

Going deep: One of the Capitals' objectives after losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Second Round last season was to become more of a four-line team so they could match the Penguins' depth. They have succeeded; they have five forwards who scored at least 20 goals, including T.J. Oshie and Ovechkin, who shared the Washington lead with 33 goals, and 11 who scored at least 12. The offseason additions of Lars Eller (12 goals) and Brett Connolly (15) paid off in filling out the third line with Andre Burakovsky (12). The Maple Leafs also have five forwards with at least 20 goals, including Matthews and Nazem Kadri (32), and nine who have reached 10. 

Man-advantage: The series will feature two of the top four power plays in the League. The Maple Leafs were second (23.8 percent), and the Capitals were tied for third with the Penguins (23.1 percent). The Capitals acquired defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk in a trade from the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 27 to strengthen their depth on defense and because of his skill on the power-play point with his right-handed shot. After taking some time to adjust, Shattenkirk has taken the Capitals power play to another level. They went 12-for-34 (35.3 percent) over the last 12 games of the regular season.

On a roll: The Capitals finished the regular season strong, going 11-2-1 in their final 14 games. That's in sharp contrast to a year ago when they coasted over the final month of the season, going 7-5-4 in their final 16 games, and never were able to flip the switch and find their top level when the playoffs began. In clinching a playoff berth, the Maple Leafs went 12-5-1 in their final 18.


By the numbers 

58: The number of games when the Capitals scored first in this season. They went 46-7-5 in those games.

8: The number of players on the Maple Leafs roster who have played in at least 10 NHL playoff games: Brian Boyle (100), Eric Fehr (60), Roman Polak (49), James van Riemsdyk (46), Frederik Andersen (28), Ben Smith (27), Matt Martin (24) and Matt Hunwick (20). Fehr is sidelined with an undisclosed injury. The Capitals have two players who have played fewer than 10 NHL playoff games: Brett Connolly (none) and backup goalie Philipp Grubauer (one).

48: The League-low number of man-games the Capitals lost to injury or illness this season. The Capitals' lone injury concern entering the playoffs is defenseman John Carlson, who missed the final four games of the regular season with a lower-body injury but is expected to be ready for Game 1 against the Maple Leafs. The Maple Leafs lost 126 man-games to injury or illness.


In the spotlight 

Capitals: Evgeny Kuznetsov, center -- As the second-line center, Kuznetsov's 77 points (20 goals, 57 assists) led the Capitals last season, but he had four points (all assists) in the final 12 games and no goals in the final 20. That carried over into the playoffs, when he had two points (one goal, one assist) in 12 games. Kuznetsov had 59 points (19 goals, 40 assists) this season after getting off to a slow start and needs to have more of an impact in the playoffs to help keep the pressure off the Capitals' first line. 

Video: NYR@WSH: Johansson, Kuznetsov connect for nifty goal

Maple Leafs: Frederik Andersen, goaltender -- Andersen (33-16-14, 2.67 goals-against average, .918 save percentage, four shutouts) might be the Maple Leafs' most important player in the series against the Capitals' high-powered offense. He sat out the regular-season finale against the Columbus Blue Jackets after leaving a 5-3 win against Pittsburgh on Saturday following a collision with Penguins forward Tom Sestito. The Maple Leafs expect him to be ready for Game 1, but if he's not, they'll have to turn to Curtis McElhinney, who has never started an NHL playoff game.

Video: TBL@TOR: Andersen robs Drouin with unbelievable save


Keys to victory 

Capitals: Focus. Although the Capitals can't win the Stanley Cup in this series, they can lose their chance to win it if they get distracted by the big picture or by talk of past early-round exits. They have tried in vain in the past to say their history has no impact. The first step toward proving that is taking care of business in this series, and then moving on to the next one.

Maple Leafs: Youth. The Maple Leafs' inexperience can be a negative, but they can use it to their advantage if they play with the same youthful enthusiasm they've had all season. They might be young enough not to realize they're big underdogs in the series and the playoffs are a bigger stage.

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