Leafs Will Scare Capitals

TORONTO (Apr. 10) — No, the Washington Capitals will not lose to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

After all, the Stanley Cup playoffs never begin with the second round.

Beyond that, maybe… just maybe… this is the year that Ovie and the boys put it together. Heaven knows they have played us for the fool on more than one occasion. Even in 2009–10, when the Capitals accumulated 121 points — sixth–most in National Hockey League history. Confounded, that spring, in the opening set by Jaro Halak and the Montreal Canadiens, merely 33 points inferior during the season.

Could it happen again, seven years later?

With Awesome Matthews in the lead role?

I doubt it. But, really, you never know.

Akin to the Toronto Blue Jays with Texas in the past two baseball playoffs, the Leafs have drawn the perennial underachiever. Not even winning the first two games of the 2015 American League Division Series at Rogers Centre could help the might–have–been’s from Arlington, who returned the favor on their home pitch; then threw it all away here in Toronto with three school–yard errors after Jose Bautista’s legendary bat–flip. Last autumn, we had the “Donaldson Dash” at Rogers Centre — the villainous Rougned Odor becoming walleyed at second base in the bottom of the 10th. Texas choked and Toronto prevailed. Again.

Hell, the Rangers and Capitals even wear the same uniform colors.

Still, it requires a stretch of the imagination for the Leafs to upbraid Washington in this year’s Stanley Cup tournament. The Capitals do not possess an apparent weakness, having added blue–line stud Kevin Shattenkirk prior to the trade deadline. At the Verizon Center this year, it has not been all Ovie all the time. Alex Ovechkin slipped from 50 to 33 goals and the club “slipped” from 120 to 118 points to retain first place in the overall standings. Which indicates, clearly, that Washington is a deeper, more–balanced team, with size; soft hands; superb goaltending, and a capacity to dictate the flow of action. At some point — and it had better be soon — learning how to lose in the playoffs will result in a legitimate Stanley Cup challenge.

Perhaps even a victory.

And, again, maybe this spring.


THE CAPITALS WILL BE HEAVILY FAVORED TO TRIP UP AUSTON MATTHWS AND THE MAPLE LEAFS IN THE OPENING ROUND OF THE PLAYOFFS. PATRICK SMITH GETTY IMAGES

But, don’t expect the Leafs to go down without a wail. Virtually every speck of onus will be on the Capitals to subdue the local upstarts. Try to imagine the sphincters in D.C. should the visitors claim one of the first two matches. Which isn’t a wholesale fantasy given the lone Toronto at Washington encounter during the regular schedule — Jan. 3. The Leafs led 4–2 after the second period and 5–4 with 6:05 left in regulation. Ultimately, the Capitals prevailed, 6–5, in overtime when Ovechkin scored and shook his head as if to say “why was that so hard?” The answer laid in difficulty provided any and all opposition by the cocksure boys in blue.

If they begin to get a whiff of playoff momentum, look out.

It will fall on Washington’s larger, more belligerent skaters to craft an edge. And, perhaps, on the lone (and rather untimely) spate of injury this season incurred by the underdog. Frederik Andersen may start in goal on Thursday night, but he is one noggin–knock from being a secondary figure. Rest assured that Washington forwards will encroach the paint somewhat recklessly when the opportunity arises. If Mike Babcock, for any length of time, has to sub blue–liners Roman Polak and Nikita Zaitsev with Martin Marincin and Alexey Marchenko, the Capitals will have some copious down–time before Round 2.

The Berger crystal ball — frequently clouded — views the series thus–ly:

I see the Capitals winning the first two games at home and then splitting Games 3 and 4 at the Air Canada Centre. The Leafs will stay alive with an overtime conquest at the Verizon Center, only to be eliminated here in town after putting up a mammoth struggle in Game 6. But, again, that’s only my gut.

Nothing ever seems impossible in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Oh yeah, my Cup final forecast? Washington over… Edmonton.

*******************************************************************************************

My picks for the Conference quarterfinals may be surprising. To wit, I believe that neither of last year’s Stanley Cup finalists — Pittsburgh and San Jose — will advance beyond the opening round. The Penguins will miss their defensive king–pin, Kris Letang, and I sense the upstart Oilers are too fast and dynamic for the Sharks, who finished the schedule with a 4–9–0 record. Until recently, I felt Minnesota may have been the best in the West. I’m far–less certain after a 4–11–2 slide between Mar. 2 and Apr. 1; nor do I think the Wild will defeat ex–coach, Mike Yeo, now behind the St. Louis bench (though that series could go the distance).

Here, then, having fun with past logos, are my picks for the first round of the playoffs:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

 
CAPITALS IN 6

 
BLUE JACKETS IN 6

Montreal Canadiens Logo - Red C white H on blue New York Rangers Logo - Red, White and Blue shield with New York on top and Rangers slanted
CANADIENS IN 7

 
SENATORS IN 6

WESTERN CONFERENCE

File:ChicagoBlackhawksLogo.svg 
BLACKHAWKS IN 5

 Calgary Flames Logo - Flaming black C with a white and yellow outline
DUCKS IN 6

 
OILERS IN 6

 Minnesota Wild Logo - Wild in wheat calligraphics in a red and green circle. Worn on the shoulder of the Minnesota Wild home and road jerseys, eventually dropped to just the road jersey before being eliminated completely following the 2009-10 season.
BLUES IN 7
LOGOS COURTESY SPORTSLOGOS.NET

CAPITALS THE 12th


CAPITALS AND LEAFS MEDIA GUIDES FROM WASHINGTON’S FIRST NHL SEASON.

Washington becomes the last team among the original 12 expansion clubs from 1967–74 to square off against the Leafs in the playoffs. Los Angeles was Toronto’s first expansion opponent — in 1975. Here’s the full breakdown of opponents and years:

1967 EXPANSION TEAMS
Los Angeles Kings — 1975 / 1978 / 1993.
Minnesota North Stars — 1980 / 1983.
Philadelphia Flyers — 1975 / 1976 / 1977 / 1999 / 2003 / 2004.
Pittsburgh Penguins1976 / 1977 / 1999.
St. Louis Blues1986 / 1987 / 1990 / 1993 / 1996.
* Leafs never faced the California Seals in the playoffs. But, there was Seals’ ancestry in the 1980 and 1983 Stanley Cup series with Minnesota. The Seals moved from Oakland to Richfield, Ohio in 1976–77 as the Cleveland Barons. The Barons, after two seasons, merged rosters with the North Stars for 1978–79.


1970 EXPANSION TEAMS
Buffalo Sabres — 1999.
Vancouver Canucks — 1994.


1972 EXPANSION TEAMS
Atlanta Flames — 1979.
New York Islanders — 1978 / 1981 / 2002.

1974 EXPANSION TEAMS
Kansas City ScoutsColorado RockiesNew Jersey Devils — 2000 / 2001 (New Jersey).
Washington Capitals — 2017.


OTHER EXPANSION OPPONENTS
San Jose Sharks — 1994.
Ottawa Senators — 2000 / 2001 / 2002 / 2004.
Hartford Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes — 2002 (Carolina).


THE LINDSAY FILE — by Lindsay Traves

Toronto lawyer and life–long Maple Leafs zealot, Lindsay Traves, will share emotions with us while her favorite team is in the playoffs. Lindsay has just now caught her breath after the weekend–that–was: 

Saturday’s Penguins at Leafs game was the best sports movie ever written.

Imagine this: A team plagued with one disappointing Stanley Cup round in the past 13 years (neither will we re–visit that night–from–hell in Boston). Its fans, scourged by interminable disappointment, finally seeing a glimmer of hope in a more youthful team. With two games left in the regular season, the oft–ill-fated Toronto Maple Leafs need two points to clinch an elusive playoff spot. An alternate avenue? Losses by the New York Islanders and the Tampa Bay Lightning.

But they don’t want that. They need to win this.

The stage is set. Earlier in the day, Kasperi Kapanen is called up from the Toronto Marlies. Only his 17th career game. He is nervous (but, on the surface, looks calm and ready). Goalie Frederik Andersen is meditating. Or maybe practicing against a wall. Teammates pat his shoulder, relying on him to protect their net. The locker room is abuzz about this game being against the defending Stanley Cup–champion Pittsburgh Penguins. The oft “great one”–compared Sidney Crosby is in uniform. Phil Kessel, the ex-boyfriend, is back… with his Cup ring. Tom Sestito is returning from a four–game suspension for his hit on Toby Enstrom. A posse of black–and–gold–clad villains is here to snare a dream from the Cinderella Leafs.  

The puck drops at the Air Canada Centre.  

The arena is alternately louder than ever, and completely silent. After a long six minutes, Phil The Thrill snakes a goal. The Hangar is a mix of disappointment and resounding boos. Kessel’s unapologetic sneer lights up the video–board above center ice. Like Toronto deserved that.


PHIL THE THRILL. A NASTY SNEER. Dan Hamilton USA Today Sports

Before the booing subsides, James van Riemsdyk — flying on this night — buries one past Marc–Andre Fleury. Tie game. No one is sitting. The first period ends with the game deadlocked. The concourse is flooded with fans whose brains flood with uncertainty.

Before the arena patrons settle in for the middle frame, a sharp whistle is heard. Sestito lumbers horizontally across the top of the crease and throws his body at the Leafs’ clutch goaltender. Freddy goes down like a ton o’ bricks. Replays show Sestito looked clearly ahead of him before cutting too close to the paint. A filthy hit worthy of Gunner Stahl. Andersen is out. Sestito incurs a measly two minutes for goaltender interference. Fans bury faces in hands. With nearly two full periods left to play, back–up Curtis McElhinney nervously dons on his helmet–mask.  

Someone asks how the Islanders are doing. They’re up 4-1. Ugh!

Rather than sicking Matt Martin on the lamentable Sistito, Tyler Bozak scores promptly on the powerplay. The arena exhales. But, the game is far from over.

It isn’t long before Crosby strikes. As usual. McElhinney just isn’t ready for this level of shooting; hardly ever in the right position. For now. The second period also ends in a tie. Both teams are exhausted.

The final frame begins slowly. Before long, and typically, the Penguins score. But, fans are undeterred. With every shot, they lean forward — in unison. The Leafs cannot lose by one. Can they?

No.  

Young Kapanen has dreamed of this moment his entire life. Skating on a line with the unparalleled rookie, Auston Matthews, he snaps a shot. Goal! The AHL call–up ties the game with his first NHL marker. Now, no person is sitting. P.A. announcer Mike Ross calls out Kapanen’s name. For the first, and only, time this season. Fans can smell a win. Taste a win. Not one of them suspects regulation time will end in a deadlock. But, no one is stupid enough to say it aloud. The ol’ jinx is saved for another time.

With 2:48 left to play, Connor “Breezy” Brown, puts one past Fleury and becomes the best friend of every person in the rink. Now, the Leafs are ahead. Again, no one is seated. No one is silent. No one is inhaling. Time for the longest few minutes of our lives. Been there. Done that. All of those sure things–gone bad flash before us. Throats are dry.  

Sid is suddenly alone in front. He snaps a one–timer at McElhinney. Darn it. But, no…. all of a sudden — at the most opportune moment — Curtis is Mr. Positioning. The save of his life; of the Leafs’ entire season. Now, the Penguins yank Fleury for an extra attacker. Fans can barely contain themselves. Matthews gets his hand on the puck and rifles No. 40 of the season into the yawning cage. Toronto fans shriek louder than at any time in the past ten years. Maybe 15 years. Even 20.

Finally… mercifully… it is over. The Leafs have made the playoffs in a full, 82–game season for the first time since 2003–04. They are actually; unquestionably, in the playoffs!

Sunday’s season finale at the ACC blows by like an “after the credits” montage. There are injuries (yikes!); great saves… and (sigh) a Toronto loss to Columbus. It means a date with the NHL’s No. 1 team, Washington, in the first round. Beginning Thursday, and perhaps for the better part of two weeks, the villain is Ovie. Uncertainty surrounds Andersen, Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak — all banged up on the weekend.

Will they be ready for Game 1?

We certainly will.

The playoffs are going to make for one hell of a sequel.


THIS TIME IS WAS “SO LONG”. NOT “BYE–BYE”. FRANK GUNN THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

LINDSAY’S PLAYOFF PICKS:

TORONTO OVER WASHINGTON IN 7.
COLUMBUS OVER PITTSBURGH IN 7.
NEW YORK OVER MONTREAL IN 7.
BOSTON OVER OTTAWA IN 5.

CHICAGO OVER NASHVILLE IN 6.
ANAHEIM OVER CALGARY IN 7.
EDMONTON OVER SAN JOSE IN 6.
ST. LOUIS OVER MINNESOTA IN 7.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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