In yet another thrilling extra-time decision in a series that has quickly become must-watch theatre, the Maple Leafs took Game 3 thanks to Tyler Bozak’s OT winner on the power play.
Your game in ten:
1. Tightness in the Leafs’ game was evident early in the contest, which has been something of a theme throughout the first round for teams playing their first home playoff game. The Leafs got off to a fast start against the Caps in Game 1, the Sens ran out to a lead on the Bruins tonight, New York jumped out ahead of Montreal at the Bell Centre in the first 10 minutes, Nashville got an early lead in Chicago in Game 1 and Chicago returned the favour in Game 3 tonight, among a few other examples (interestingly, the road team has won 13 of the 24 playoff games so far overall).
Nikita Zaitsev was jumping into the fast lane coming off of injury and it showed on the two early Washington goals, but the Leafs as a unit were losing puck race after puck race and puck battle after puck battle in the first 10 minutes of the first period (Zaitsev, to his credit, settled in as the game wore on, post-insane Don Cherry rant).
2. That all changed with what’s now known simply as The Shift™ initiated by Nazem Kadri, who got dumped three or four times on the shift previous and came out like a wrecking ball on the next, running Books Orpik twice (adding a punch while he was down the first time) before Leo Komarov took some shots at Alex Ovechkin along the boards. That got the ACC crowd right back into it after a 0-2 start, and Auston Matthews’ goal came just seconds later.
That was a statement sequence from Kadri, who has talked the talk and walked the walk this year when it comes to taking on a leadership role on this team. He later scored a huge goal to get the comeback underway with the score at 3-1 and set up Tyler Bozak’s game-winning goal in OT on the power play.
3. Nothing all that surprising or unfamiliar about Barry Trotz’s post-game comment: “Lots of clutching and grabbing through the neutral zone by them.”
This was a common refrain to hear about the Red Wings — particularly around playoff time, when the ticky-tack calls tend to fade — from opposition head coaches during Babcock’s tenure. Here was Jon Cooper in 2015 when the Red Wings and Lightning squared off in the first round:
There are 30 teams in the league and nobody does (interference) more than the Detroit Red Wings, hands down. The old saying is, ‘If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.’ They do it to a ‘T’.
Adding some molasses to the neutral zone is trademark Babcock, and it’s particularly important in this matchup for a Leafs team that has weaknesses – exacerbated by injuries – on the backend. It buys time for the D to retrieve pucks and get turned around before a heavy team like the Capitals can establish their forecheck. It’s important for this Leaf team to spend as little time in their own zone as possible, to state the obvious, because they’re still prone to coverage issues when they do. When Rielly, Gardiner and Zaitsev retrieve the puck and have time to turn the corner and make plays, the Leafs are usually back on offense quickly.
4. Tonight was the first time I’ve heard Babcock explicitly praise his own team’s depth in a post-game interview. Not that it isn’t obvious by this point, but it’s something Babcock talked about a lot this year in reference to the best teams in the league and what the Leafs are trying to accomplish.
We think we’re quick. We really do. We think we’re quick. We think we know how to play. We’ve got lots of guys who play hard. We’ve got good energy and good depth.
Through three games, every Leaf forward now has a point except for Connor Brown, who was instrumental in Kadri’s 3-2 goal that got the comeback started tonight. All season we’ve seen the Leafs’ forward lines pick one another up; the Marner line — so effective on the road to start the series — couldn’t generate much of anything at 5v5 in this game and the trio was pretty sloppy with the puck throughout regulation, but the Kadri and Matthews lines had great nights. Add in a fourth line that has been generating pushback shifts at key times in games – and contributing offensively to boot – and the Leafs forward group has really hit its stride at the right time of year.
5. You would comfortably stack up the Leafs forward depth against any team in the league right now, but the same does not apply on their blue line, which makes the possible Marincin injury worrisome, just as Marincin was coming into his his own on the PK (that was a fantastic effort on the crucial 5-on-3 kill) and his confidence seemed to be coming around a little bit at evens. Let’s hope for the best.
On the Capitals’ side, Karl Alzner didn’t play due to injury tonight and that might have actually been a bad thing for the Leafs. Playing in his place was Nate Schmidt, a decent NHL defenceman who adds some pace to the Caps d-core. He set up that first Washington goal at 4-on-4 and was on the ice for all three Caps goals.
Defensive depth remains the question mark for the Leafs as this series stretches into five, six, or seven games. So far they’re getting huge performances from Rielly and Gardiner while depth guys like Hunwick, Polak (who is now out) and Marincin (who may also be out) have been surpassing expectations in roles seemingly above their heads.
6. Mike Babcock called Game 3 Nylander’s best game of the series. In all three games, he has been dangerous with the puck on his stick, but the difference was he had it a tonne tonight, finishing with a simply ridiculous 82% CF. He was finally rewarded with a goal off of, a) a fantastic job of forechecking by Zach Hyman to occupy two Caps defencemen, and b) a great pass from Auston Matthews off of his backhand. With a goal under his belt, he won’t be squeezing the stick and the offence should come easier for him (as well as Matthews, with both having now put their first career playoff goal on the board). Scary thought if you’re Washington.
The Kuznetsov lined generated a total of one unblocked shot attempt in their seven minutes head to head with the Matthews line at even strength. One.
7. With 10 goals in three games, the Leafs are third among the 16 playoff teams (behind Anaheim and Pittsburgh) in goals and they are up against the league’s best defensive team in the regular season with the league’s best goalie by save percentage in net. Holtby has now allowed 17 goals in five games against the Leafs this season (regular season + playoffs). They’re making the reigning Vezina winner look very ordinary so far.
It’s not like Holtby has let in a bunch of weak goals or anything, either. The Leafs have been successful at generating offense from behind the goal line with quickness on the forecheck and the cycle game, getting numbers to the net or putting pucks on him through traffic, which is hard to defend for any goaltender.
8. Alex Ovechkin played only 12:40 at even strength in this game (15:08 total), which is less than two minutes more than Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson. His line was flying early, too. The whole idea behind the reduction in Ovechkin’s minutes in the regular season was to save him for playoff time, and yet…
So far, Barry Trotz has been pretty unimaginative and it seems like Babcock is getting his way with matchups. Curious to see what he changes for Game 4, if anything.
9. Thought the Capitals really showed their class in the past two third periods of the past two games, out-attempting the Leafs by a whopping 55-29 and outshooting them 27-15 at even strength. That makes what the Leafs managed in the third period tonight — giving up just three shots, generating nine, and outattempting them 17-8 — all the more impressive. The Leafs shorten their D rotation in third periods and it made you wonder what kind of effect that was having late on in contests, but no such issue tonight. A dominant period to set up the game winner early in OT.
10. Washington will now spend two more days in the epicentre of a hockey media maelstrom, facing a barrage of questions about why they can’t seem to get it done in the playoffs. Trotz has already attempted to turn down the heat on his team with comments about how the Leafs collected just four fewer points than the Capitals in the 2017 portion of the schedule and that this is no David vs. Goliath situation. Clearly, it’s tense in that room. Provided the team doesn’t spend their time at home buying into their own hype, the Toronto media machine should only help the Leafs’ cause here after a big Game 3 win.
Nazem Kadri: "This isn't pressure. This is fun for us."
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) April 18, 2017
For a bunch more insight on Game 3 and what to look for ahead of Game 4 on Wednesday, check out Anthony’s notebook.