LOOK­ING IN THE MIR­ROR

Up­start Maple Leafs look a lot like Cap­i­tals of years past

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY NORA PRINCIOTTI

In the Maple Leafs, their first-round Stan­ley Cup Play­off op­po­nents, the Cap­i­tals see a bit of their past selves.

Led by cen­ter Aus­ton Matthews, the rookie with the most goals since Alex Ovechkin, Toronto will bring scor­ing, speed, and in­ex­pe­ri­ence to Ver­i­zon Cen­ter Thurs­day, a bit like the Cap­i­tals did back in 2007-08, the first year in the Ovechkin era in which they made the playoffs.

“Yeah,” cen­ter Nick­las Back­strom, who was taken in the first round of the 2006 draft, two years after the Cap­i­tals se­lected Ovechkin, said. “A lit­tle bit. Ob­vi­ously they have a young and tal­ented team and we all know that about the Leafs do too, so. They’re a fast team. It’s a great matchup for us and a great chal­lenge for us in the first round there so it’ll be a bat­tle.”

The Leafs have had a top 10 draft pick in each of the last three years, se­lect­ing cen­ter Mitch Marner fourth over­all in the 2015 draft and cen­ter Wil­liam Ny­lan­der eighth over­all the year be­fore that. Things didn’t come to­gether un­til this year with Matthews, the first over­all pick in the 2016 en­try draft, who has scored 40 goals and is a Calder Tro­phy shoe-in as the league’s best rookie.

“He play in a high level, ob­vi­ously. Him, [Pa­trik] Laine, all those dif­fer­ent guys, they play well. It’s fun to watch,”

Ovechkin said.

(Ovechkin, by the way, scored 52 goals in his first sea­son, 2005-06.)

All that tal­ent is plenty good enough to ex­cite, but young teams of­ten flame out in the post­sea­son. In 2008, Cap­i­tals lost in seven to the Philadel­phia Fly­ers in the first round. What mem­o­ries or lessons does Ovechkin hold from those days?

“It was long time ago,” Ovechkin said. “I can’t re­mem­ber.”

Vet­eran move.

Toronto’s youth move­ment may not have mas­tered such tricks yet, and the sim­ple abil­ity to de­flect a ques­tion can help a player main­tain fo­cus when ev­ery­thing goes hay­wire in the post­sea­son.

“Ob­vi­ously, play­off ex­pe­ri­ence is on their side for sure,” Maple Leafs coach Mike Bab­cock said Tues­day. “I like the youth­ful en­thu­si­asm we have, I like how quick we can play, but we’re go­ing to have to play quick and do the right things. Our in­tent is to get pre­pared over the next cou­ple days, en­joy the process and go into Wash­ing­ton and be pre­pared to win.”

The Cap­i­tals will have the great­est ad­van­tage against Toronto’s de­fense. Wash­ing­ton was the stingi­est group in the NHL, al­low­ing only 2.22 goals per game dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son, while Toronto let in 2.95. The teams are more evenly matched on of­fense, with Wash­ing­ton still own­ing the edge with 3.21 goals per game to Toronto’s 3.06.

For the most part, the Leafs high­scor­ing of­fense runs on speed, which the Cap­i­tals can counter with their strong puck-pos­ses­sion game.

“It’s not any dif­fer­ent than any other skill player or speedy play­ers,” Cap­i­tals de­fense­man Matt Niska­nen said. “All the old clichés: time and space, be hard on them. I think the big thing with them is don’t give them any free­bies. I think if we can elim­i­nate our turnovers and keep the puck head­ing north, that ben­e­fits us.”

Those things helped the Cap­i­tals to a 2-1 reg­u­lar-sea­son record against Toronto, with one win com­ing in over­time. Another les­son from those games was to wear the Leafs down phys­i­cally, ac­cord­ing to Back­strom.

“We have to stay on their Ds and make sure we play phys­i­cal be­cause that’s why we won that game, I think. We stay on top of our D and we stay ag­gres­sive, I think, that’s what we got to do against a team like that,” Back­strom said.

As far as spe­cial teams play, the Cap­i­tals were fourth on the power play and sev­enth on the penalty kill dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son, while the Leafs ranked sec­ond and 10th in those cat­e­gories, re­spec­tively.

If the Maple Leafs have an ad­van­tage any­where it’s ei­ther in Bab­cock, a po­ten­tial Jack Adams Award-win­ner for coach­ing his young up­starts into a sur­pris­ing play­off berth, or in the fact that they don’t face the same weighty ex­pec­ta­tions that are fall­ing on the Cap­i­tals. The lat­ter fac­tor only goes so far, though, be­cause, as they say, it’s the cup.

“They’re a team that they’ll talk about that they’ll have noth­ing to lose when in fact, ev­ery­body does. It’s a play­off se­ries, it’s ex­pe­ri­ence, it’s some­thing that we rel­ish as play­ers, and this is a fun time of year,” Cap­i­tals right winger Justin Wil­liams said.

Adrenaline and youth­ful energy are one thing at the start of a se­ries, but if a team gets backed into a cor­ner, ex­pe­ri­ence of­ten tri­umphs.

“You’re so pumped up,” Back­strom said, re­call­ing his first playoffs. “But it’s kind of like both, ner­vous and pumped up, so it’s go­ing to be a great feel­ing for them I think.”

That great feel­ing prob­a­bly won’t last for­ever, as the Maple Leafs are up against a su­pe­rior team in the Cap­i­tals on both sides of the ice, but par­tic­u­larly de­fen­sively. Give them a few years, though. After all, the Cap­i­tals have been at this a while and still haven’t found what they’re look­ing for.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Toronto Maple Leafs are led by cen­ter Aus­ton Matthews, the rookie with the most goals since the Cap­i­tals’ Alex Ovechkin. The Maple Leafs have had a top 10 draft pick in each of the last three years, but things didn’t come to­gether for the team un­til this year with Matthews, who has scored 40 goals and is a Calder Tro­phy can­di­date for top rookie.

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