Last Updated: 2017-04-20
One of the keys to winning in the playoffs is the ability to make adjustments. When the Washington Capitals were heading into Game 4 at the Air Canada Centre, they ran the risk of falling down 3-1 in the series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. It can be hard to get a team that won 55 of its 82 games to make those necessary changes, but Barry Trotz had the magic touch and the Capitals held off the Maple Leafs to pick up a 5-4 win and even the series at 2-2. The Capitals opened an overwhelming favorite of -245 for Game 5, but the market has correctly hit the opposite side to drive the number down into the -210 range.
If you’ll recall the Game 4 preview that I wrote, my final conclusion was to take the Toronto Maple Leafs based on my skepticism that the Washington Capitals would be willing to change their plan of attack. Right from the drop of the puck, it was clear that things were going to be different. The Capitals scored a dirty goal on a rebound in front with the first of two from TJ Oshie. Head coach Barry Trotz made a savvy adjustment to put Tom Wilson on the right wing with Andre Burakovsky at left wing and Lars Eller at center. Wilson made a pretty immediate impact right away by helping to draw a power play that gave Washington the opportunity to make it a 2-0 game. TJ Oshie’s first goal was the result of a rebound in front. Wilson would score twice in the first period, once on a puck that happened to hit him in front and once on a great pass from Burakovsky.
Sure, it was concerning that Washington allowed Toronto back into the game. The Maple Leafs never quit and made the game way too close for comfort after Washington opened up a 4-1 lead just over 16 minutes into the game. That left head coach Mike Babcock with something to build on. The Maple Leafs were the hunted and not the hunter in the first period and it showed. They were complacent. The game came to them. They didn’t take the game to Washington. It’s not rare to see this in the playoffs, which is why some people swear by the Zig-Zag Theory, which suggests that playing the opposite side straight up and ATS in the playoffs is going to turn a profit long-term because one team adjusts (or “tries harder”) and the other team doesn’t. That wasn’t really the case in this game. The Capitals just had a renewed sense of purpose. TJ Oshie barely celebrated his first goal. It was all business from the start.
But, the Maple Leafs battled back. Zach Hyman scored the type of goal that can sometimes turn the tide. The Maple Leafs got a great redirection goal from James van Riemsdyk on the power play. Auston Matthews had another goal and the Maple Leafs kept pushing until the final buzzer to close the gap to one goal. Even though Toronto lost a chance to take control of the series, they showed a large amount of resilience and, again, never panicked. That was a major point in my Game 4 preview. Babcock’s team has not once lost its composure in this series. Even when Washington was ahead 4-1, it felt like there was a belief that a comeback was possible. There wasn’t a whole lot that Frederik Andersen could do, stopping just 22 of 27 shots, but it would be nice to see him set the tone in Game 5. The Maple Leafs outshot the Capitals 19-3 in the final period. There probably isn’t any momentum in that, but momentum can come quickly if Andersen plays like he did in the first three games.
While the Capitals made the necessary adjustments and got out to what proved to be an insurmountable lead in the first period, there still wasn’t a whole lot to like about the total package. It is a cardinal sin to fall back into a “prevent defense” like the Capitals did, sitting three guys back at the blue line on every Toronto line rush. Washington was fortunate that Toronto came out looking to assert its physicality rather than do what they had success with early in the series, otherwise the Capitals probably don’t get out to that 4-1 lead. Another glaring problem for me in this series is Brooks Orpik. Orpik is entirely too slow to be on the ice with this Toronto team and he’ll certainly be too slow next series if the Pittsburgh Penguins are the next opponent on the docket. Orpik has gotten himself out of position looking for too many big hits and nearly cost Washington a goal with an asinine slashing penalty to give the Maple Leafs a 5-on-3 coming out of the second period intermission. If Karl Alzner returns for Game 5, Nate Schmidt needs to stay in for Washington, but he won’t.
As mentioned, the elevation of Tom Wilson from the fourth line to the third line paid huge dividends. It gave the Capitals a banger willing to go into the high-traffic areas to pair with a possession monster like Andre Burakovsky. It worked well with Lars Eller also. The Capitals second line of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson, and Justin Williams was pretty silent, though, as the Ovechkin-Backstrom-Oshie line had a big night offensively. The fourth line basically never saw the ice for Washington. Trotz should expect Babcock to make some adjustments to his defensive matchups and should also expect the former Red Wings coach to come up with a new wrinkle for him. Finding a way to trap Orpik should be the primary focus for Babcock because he is the weakest link on the Capitals roster right now. Braden Holtby did a much better job of challenging shooters and coming out to find pucks in traffic, but he still gave up four goals on 34 shots. Toronto’s “throw it on net from anywhere” mentality seems to be giving Washington fits. The Capitals blocked 22 shots, but need to do a better job of picking up sticks and men in front of the net. Holtby is fighting through screens to make the initial stop and then there are too many times when rebounds are there with unclaimed Leafs forwards swarming.
Free NHL Pick: Washington Capitals
For now, the Capitals and their fans can “unpucker”, as it were. It still wasn’t a complete effort from Washington, who in no way should feel comfortable or content with the Game 4 win. But, the Capitals did find a couple of things that really worked for them, with the top line getting it in gear and a better effort from the Eller line. If Babcock adjusts to match up with that Eller line, the door should open for the Kuznetsov line to get some more chances. We’ll see what adjustments Babcock has in store and the Leafs are unquestionably a live dog for four one-goal games in this series so far, but the Capitals should hold serve at home and push Toronto to the brink of elimination.