Cup-hungry Capitals face Leafs at start of contending window
Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom remember what their first taste of the playoffs was like, even though it was nine years ago.
Backstrom's eyes lit up just thinking about the adrenaline and the emotion of 2008. Ovechkin added: "Everybody was happy because we take a huge step forward as an organization and as players."
The next step is overdue in many ways. Ovechkin, Backstrom and the rest of the Washington Capitals have since been there and done that, and are going into their ninth playoff appearance in 10 years. Their first-round opponent, the Toronto Maple Leafs, will have nine players making their NHL playoff debuts in Game 1 Thursday night.
As the Maple Leafs savour their first playoff chance, the Capitals are staring down very likely their last best chance to win the Stanley Cup. Sixteen victories is a long road, and they haven't gotten past seven in the Ovechkin era, but in the first round the Capitals hope their experience overtakes the Maple Leafs' youthful exuberance.
"You played in it a couple times and maybe you should just try to calm yourself down a little bit and make sure you focus on the right things because there's a lot of things going in your head," Backstrom said. "They have a young and talented team and we all know that about the Leafs."
The only Capitals player who has yet to appear in a playoff game is third-line winger Brett Connolly. This seasoned group has a three-time Cup winner and 2014 playoff MVP in Justin Williams and 2009 Cup champion Brooks Orpik along with a core group that has been through the post-season grind many times before.
Toronto has rookie of the year front-runner Auston Matthews, candidates Mitch Marner and William Nylander and a handful of other players who will quickly figure out what playoff hockey is like.
"Playoff experience is on their side for sure," Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. "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."
Some more things to watch in the first-round series between the Capitals and Maple Leafs:
Matthews, an Arizona native who was the top pick in the draft, is the first rookie to score at least 40 goals since Ovechkin in 2005-06. He bears watching every shift.
"When you look at his game versus a lot of other guys that are goal-scorers, especially at young ages, a lot of guys cheat offensively," Orpik said. "But I don't think there's any cheat in his game. You watch how good he is, all 200 feet of the ice, at that age, that's probably what jumps out the most, his all-around game."
HOLTBY VS. ANDERSEN
A series that could have back-and-forth action means a lot of work for Washington goaltender Braden Holtby and Maple Leafs counterpart Frederik Andersen. Holtby's .937 playoff save percentage ranks first in NHL history and his 1.87 goals-against average fourth, tops among active goalies.
"I've never really not felt comfortable going into the playoffs," Holtby said. "I've always view it (as) it's the same game."
Andersen is coming off a suspected concussion but has been a backbone for Toronto this season.
Babcock, who won the Presidents' Trophy twice in Detroit along with a championship, said there's an inherent pressure and tightness that comes in during the playoffs.
The Capitals aren't running away from big expectations.
"We are trying to create the expectation to get to the next level and we haven't won a Cup, and that's something that this group has an opportunity to do," Trotz said. "Our group has accepted that. There's a way different feel this year than last year, a way different feel."
BLACK AND BLUE LINE
The Maple Leafs' defence is missing a key piece to start the series with Nikita Zaitsev out for at least Game 1 after not practicing Wednesday. Roman Polak should play after being injured in the regular-season finale. Capitals defenceman John Carlson is expected to be good to go after missing the final four games of the regular season with a lower-body injury.
While the Capitals have endured a lot of playoff disappointments in recent years, the Maple Leafs only have one, but blowing a 4-1 lead to the Boston Bruins with 11 minutes left in Game 7 in 2013 is a doozy. Only four players, Nazem Kadri, Leo Komarov, Jake Gardiner and James van Riemsdyk, remain from that loss, so it won't be hard for most of the team to ignore the history.