LEAFS IN­SIDE

Toronto Star - - SPORTS - Dave Feschuk

Feschuk: Why I picked the Leafs to knock off the Cap­i­tals,

I’m pick­ing the Maple Leafs to win their first-round play­off se­ries against the Washington Cap­i­tals for a lot of rea­sons — for one, pos­si­bly be­cause I’m a des­per­ate and nearly pen­ni­less sports bet­tor who also had Jor­dan Spi­eth in the green jacket, Duke in the Fi­nal Four and Hil­lary in the White House.

Favourites? Right now they’re not my favourite.

So I’m pick­ing the Leafs, not be­cause I know they’re go­ing to win, but be­cause I know this: The idea that the Cap­i­tals are pro­hib­i­tive, can’t-lose over­dogs — the idea that they ought to be con­sid­ered a Cup-or-bust out­fit that will hoist Lord Stan­ley’s mug or be deemed a fail­ure — ig­nores much of what we’ve learned in re­cent his­tory.

Yes, the Cap­i­tals are the league’s best team as mea­sured by reg­u­larsea­son record, win­ning the Pres­i­dents’ Tro­phy for the third time in the Alex Ovechkin era. But we should know by now that the Pres­i­dents’ Tro­phy is to play­off suc­cess what the pres­i­dent’s Twit­ter ac­count is to cool-headed states­man­ship — not of­ten syn­ony­mous.

Eleven teams have won the Pres­i­dents’ Tro­phy since the lock­out that killed the 2004-05 sea­son. Only two of those 11 have won the Stan­ley Cup. That’s an 18-per-cent con­ver­sion rate when it comes to turn­ing the league’s best record over 82 games into a cham­pi­onship in the salary-cap era. That’s not so great.

Less great? Four times in the past 11 sea­sons, the team with the NHL’s best reg­u­lar-sea­son point to­tal has been elim­i­nated in the first round.

“It re­ally is hard to ex­plain,” said Leafs vet­eran Brian Boyle, speak­ing of the NHL’s pen­chant for firstround Go­liath-smash­ing. “Some­times the eighth seed re­ally isn’t the eighth seed. Maybe they had some in­juries or made some trades. Teams change. Teams grow. Young teams get bet­ter.”

None of that proves any­thing, of course. But it does strongly sug­gest the young-and-get­ting-bet­ter Maple Leafs aren’t as mas­sive a long shot as some would have you be­lieve.

“You’ve seen teams that are as good (as the Cap­i­tals), as vet­eran, as ex­pe­ri­enced, crum­ble be­fore. It hap­pens,” Con­nor Car­rick, the ex-Cap­i­tals de­fence­man now play­ing for Toronto, was say­ing Wed­nes­day. “That’s hockey. It’s a hard game. One thing can change a se­ries. An in­jury. A call. One game . . .” One game. Game One. And imag­ine what hap­pens if the Maple Leafs find a way to win. Let’s say Toronto’s de­fen­sive corps rises to the chal­lenge. Let’s say Toronto’s young guns get their “five a night,” as Leafs coach Mike Bab­cock some­times likes to brag. Let’s say Martin Mar- in­cin, who’ll be in the lineup for the first time in about a month re­plac­ing the still-in­jured Nikita Zait­sev, doesn’t turn out to be the li­a­bil­ity some feel he can be. Or even if Mar­incin does turn out to be the rusty mess you’d ex­pect, let’s say goal­tender Fred­erik An­der­sen brings forth a game plucked from his best stuff to pa­per over the cracks. The Leafs have used that recipe many times this sea­son. All of it’s doable and fath­omable.

And yet, if the Leafs win, Washington’s hockey au­di­ence gets apoplec­tic. Sud­denly all of Washington’s doubters will be in here-we-go-again mode, be­cause the Ovechkin Cap­i­tals, for all their prom­ise, have ei­ther lost in the first round or missed the play­offs in an amaz­ing six of Ovechkin’s 11 pre­vi­ous sea­sons with the club. Lose an­other and the Twit­terer-in-Chief might be giv­ing his D.C. neigh­bours the Meryl Streep treat­ment. Over­rated. Losers. Sad.

“Once you’re in the play­offs, all it takes is one game,” Car­rick said. “You win one game, and now you see a crack. And you un­der­stand, ‘OK, if I can just car­bon-copy that three more times . . .’ ”

Mike Bab­cock has spent time this week talk­ing about the great Red Wings team he coached back in 2005-06 — a team that won a league-best 58 reg­u­lar-sea­son games be­fore it was bounced in the first round by the Ed­mon­ton Oil­ers. Bab­cock has spo­ken about how ex­pec­ta­tions can pro­duce the “pucker fac­tor.” That’s “pucker,” as in “to be­come con­stricted,” or “to shrivel.” That’s no doubt part of what’s hap­pened to the Pres­i­dents’ Tro­phy-win­ning teams that have lost in the first round.

So there’s the pucker fac­tor. And then there’s the puck-stopper fac­tor. That Bab­cock-coached Red Wings team was cap­tained by Steve Yz­er­man and stacked with Hall of Famers, among them Leafs pres­i­dent Bren­dan Shana­han, Chris Che­lios and Nick Lid­strom. And yet it was Oil­ers goal­tender Dwayne Rolo­son who proved to be the most im­por­tant player in the se­ries.

The 2008-09 San Jose Sharks fin­ished first over­all, but they couldn’t fin­ish around the net oc­cu­pied by Ana­heim goalie Jonas Hiller, who put up a .957 save per­cent­age and two shutouts in that top­pling.

The Pres­i­dents’ Tro­phy-win­ning Van­cou­ver Canucks of 2011-2012 were out-Quicked, with L.A. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick al­low­ing just eight goals against in five games.

And the 2009-10 Cap­i­tals that had the NHL’s best record and ex­ited in the open­ing round; Mon­treal’s net­min­der Jaroslav Halak and his .939 se­ries save per­cent­age made that hap­pen.

That’s not to say some­thing like it is go­ing to hap­pen here, but why couldn’t An­der­sen join that group?

The dif­fer­ence for the Cap­i­tals, six years on, is that their own goal­tender, Braden Holtby, has so far proven to be a su­pe­rior play­off per­former, too. Still, hockey is fleet­ing and ever-chang­ing. Last year the Leafs fin­ished last over­all. This year they’ve got a chance to elim­i­nate first over­all. That they’ve trav­elled such a dis­tance in a mat­ter of 12 months tells you ev­ery­thing you need to know about the thin­ness of the mar­gins in this busi­ness.

That’s not to say any­body ac­tu­ally knows what’s go­ing to hap­pen, other than some ran­dom hap­pen­ing you prob­a­bly can’t fore­see. When noth­ing’s cer­tain, ev­ery­thing’s fore­see­able — even the Maple Leafs mov­ing on to the sec­ond round. Don’t bet on it for any­thing other than recre­ational pur­poses, of course.

But don’t dis­miss it as im­pos­si­bil­ity, ei­ther.

ROB CARR/GETTY IMAGES

Alex Ovechkin and the Cap­i­tals haven’t been able to par­lay reg­u­lar-sea­son suc­cess into a deep play­off run.

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