By Ben Browne
It has been a dead heat.
Through five games of the Leafs and Capitals series, no one has really had an edge. The Capitals have gotten out to a couple leads early in games, but the Leafs have always bounced back to make the game close.
That includes coming back from 2–0 and 3–1 deficits in Game 3 to pull off a thrilling overtime win, and nearly rallying from 4–1 down after 20 minutes in Game 4. As Joe Bowen has said numerous times in the series, “These kids just won’t go away.”
But, after going up 2–1 in the series by virtue of their Game 3 win, they followed that up with their worst effort of the series in Game 4, and another overtime loss––their second of the series in the fourth such game––in Game 5. They now find themselves on the verge of elimination.
Now the series shifts back to Toronto tonight for Game 6. Despite not being able to afford another defeat, the Leafs seem very loose heading into their first of two do-or-die affairs with the Ovi-led Caps.
And that’s the way they should be feeling.
As has been talked about ad nauseam throughout this series, all the pressure is on the Capitals to win this series. In fact, they are already being criticized by many fans and media personnel for not having done so already. To put it frankly, nothing short of a Stanley Cup victory will bar them from the off-season discussion they have become all too familiar with. That of “The Capitals can’t win in the playoffs.”
Conversely, there is absolutely zero pressure on this Leafs team. If they go out and lose 9–0 tonight, fans will still be applauding them as they head off the ice. But that won’t happen. If they do lose, though, this has still been a remarkable ride––one that no one, not even Mike Babcock, could have expected.
That said, there is a very good––very good––chance that the Leafs do win this game and force a Game 7. Why? Well, why not? They have played as good as––and, at many times, better than––the Capitals for the majority of this series. And there is no reason they can’t do it again––or better yet, two more times.
The Buds have won two in a row in this series already. One was in Washington, the other was in Toronto. And you can’t say the games the Leafs won were lucky wins––ones they had no business winning. One was in double overtime where they were outshot by one, and the other was a game in which they trailed by two goals on two different occasions and came from behind to win. That was something (coming back from a two goal deficit to win a game) they only did once in an entire 82-game regular season. They’ve equaled that already through six games of playoff hockey.
The Leafs have plenty of work to do if they want to pull of this upset, but they can do it. They’ve played four OT games, but look none the worse for wear. They’ve shown an ability to compete, win puck battles, and put the biscuit in the twine. The one thing they’ll want to sure up (they did a pretty good job of it in Game 5) is limiting Washington’s scoring chances. The Capitals have scored 16 goals through five games; the Leafs have scored 15. However, the boys in blue can’t bank on outscoring Washington in order to win this series. They need to keep up their end of the offensive bargain while neutralizing the Capitals offensively. Seems easier said than done, but they did part of that in Game 5. And if they do it twice more, while scoring 3 goals a game, their odds of completing the impossible increase substantially.
All five games thus far have been one-goal games. The Leafs are right there. They could use some more production out of Mitch Marner and “Wee Willy” Nylander, who each have just four points––and only one goal––five games into their playoff careers. If those two can get going, and their power play, which has mustered just three goals in 17 opportunities, which is good for just a 17.6% success rate––a 6.2% drop-off from the 23.8% clip that slotted them 2nd in power play proficiency during the regular season, can start netting them some goals, that will also help their chances dramatically.
So what I’m saying is, there’s a strong probability we’ll be seeing much more Leafs playoff hockey. Of course nothing is guaranteed, but going off what we’ve seen so far in this series, the Leafs are far from out of it. In fact, they are right in it.
Ben Browne also writes for Canada Football Chat. Find him on Twitter here.