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Capitals vs. Maple Leafs Playoffs 2017: Previewing the 5 players to watch in first-round series

Capitals vs. Maple Leafs Playoffs 2017: Previewing the 5 players to watch in first-round series

On Thursday, the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs will start their quest for the Stanley Cup in the first round of the playoffs with Game 1 of their first-round series.

Both teams will dress 18 skaters and two goalies in each game, but here are five players for fans to keep an eye on through the series who could have the biggest impact.

Five Key Players to Watch in Capitals vs. Maple Leafs series

1. Auston Matthews

Matthews led Toronto in points (69) and finished tied for second in the NHL in goals with 40. He clearly surpassed expectations in his rookie season, but how will he do with his first taste of playoff hockey?

If Toronto’s defense finds a way to shut down Alex Ovechkin, the Caps still have the offensive depth to survive. The same is not true for the Leafs. If their top player is not at his best, Toronto does not really have an answer. That is the danger of a team whose best player is a rookie.


2. Frederick Andersen

There’s no secret what Toronto’s Achilles heel is. Defensively, the Maple Leafs allowed more goals per game (2.85) this season than any other playoff team. Against an offense as good and as deep as the Capitals, Toronto's defense could get shredded. If the Leafs have any chance to pull off this upset, any chance at all, Andersen needs to have as strong a performance as he had last season when he posted a 1.41 GAA and .947 save percentage for the Anaheim Ducks.

3. John Carlson

Washington has had really good luck when it comes to health this season. That looks like it has extended into the postseason.

The one question mark coming in was the health of Carlson who missed the last four games of the regular season with a lower-body injury.

Good news came on Wednesday, however as he skated with Karl Alzner on the top pair at practice. All eyes will be on him if and when he returns to the lineup for Game 1 on Thursday. You can bet Mike Babcock will test Carlson’s health by matching him against some of his top offensive players so we will see quickly just how healthy he really is.

4. Matt Niskanen

Arguably Washington’s top defensive player, it will fall on Niskanen to stop Toronto’s bright young offensive stars. Plus, with Carlson’s health in question, Niskanen’s pair may well end up getting the most playing time. If offense is Toronto’s strength, how well Niskanen is able to play defensively could well determine the series.

5. Alex Ovechkin

Despite the emergence of Matthews and the young guns of the Leafs and despite the incredible season of T.J. Oshie, when these two teams meet, the best player on the ice will still be Ovechkin.

Washington beefed up its scoring depth so as not to rely on him so much in the playoffs, but with Toronto's defensive woes this season, this will be Ovechkin's time to shine. This has the potential to be a big series for the Great 8 as he shows the kids just how it's done in the playoffs.


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3 stars of the game: Caps win brutal rematch to sweep home-and-home with Islanders

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3 stars of the game: Caps win brutal rematch to sweep home-and-home with Islanders

The Caps rocked the green in warmups, the red for the game and left a bit black and blue after a brutal 6-3 win over the New York Islanders.

Based on how things went in Brooklyn on Thursday, odds were that there would be some bad blood when the two teams met Washington on Friday. One night after giving up seven goals, the Islanders gave up another five in Washington and frustrations over a rough season boiled over all game long.

Ross Johnston was ejected for continuing to fight Tom Wilson even after the referees intervened, both teams combined for 56 PIMs and Evgeny Kuznetsov left the game in the second period after a slash from Thomas Hickey as he went headfirst into the boards.

The sting of the rough night was mitigated somewhat, however, by the 6-3 score as the Caps won their fourth straight.

Here are the three stars of the game.

1. Alex Chiasson: Playing in his first game since March 8, Chiasson made the most of his opportunity with a three-point night. Jakub Vrana did the legwork as he drove the net with the puck. Jaroslav Halak stuck out his stick catching Vrana which spun the netminder around and out of the crease. Chiasson came up behind for the easy layup. He would repay the favor with an assist for Vrana's goal later in the third. Chiasson's first assist on the night came in the second period as his initial shot was saved, but he stayed in the face of Halak long enough to prevent him from making the save on Matt Niskanen's goal.

2. Nicklas Backstrom: When things were getting ugly, Backstrom made the Islanders pay with a power play goal on the two-man advantage. After Johnston lost his marbles and Cal Clutterbuck was called for interference on Oshie, the Capitals needed to take advantage and put the Islanders away or watch New York build momentum. That was the critical juncture of the game. Backstrom also added an assist on the two-point night.

3. Braden Holtby: The recent struggles of Holtby have been well documented. After yielding the crease to Philipp Grubauer the last four games, Holtby got the start on Friday and played very well in the winning effort. The defense in front of him certainly helped allowing only 13 shots in the first two periods, but the Islanders were buzzing in the third period. New York battled back to make it 5-3 and Mathew Barzal had a breakaway opportunity with a chance to cut the deficit to one. Holtby made the save to deny Barzal and shut the door on the comeback attempt. In all, Holtby turned aside 22 of the 25 shots he faced.

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Braden Holtby pegs mental fatigue, not physical, as the root of his struggles

Braden Holtby pegs mental fatigue, not physical, as the root of his struggles

It’s no secret what the biggest question surrounding the Washington Capitals is right now: What happened to Braden Holtby?

Since Feb. 2, Holtby has been pulled four times in 11 starts with a .872 save percentage and 4.45 GAA. For a goalie whose career has been marked by consistently great play and who has won a Vezina Trophy after being a finalist in each of the past two seasons, those are staggering numbers.

Now with Holtby set to make his first start since March 6, he sounds very confident that he has put those problems behind him.

“It was obviously good to clear your mind and step back,” Holtby said after Friday’s morning skate. “It makes it a lot better when we had success while that was going on. That makes it easier to just focus on regrouping and just working on a few things a couple days in practice.”


Some have speculated, including former Capitals goalie Brent Johnson, that perhaps fatigue was the cause of his struggles.

Since the 2014-15 season, no goalie has played in more games than Holtby’s 250. Even after Philipp Grubauer’s recent stretch of starts, Holtby still has played in six more games than the closest goalie, Boston netminder Tuukka Rask.

On Friday, Hotlby admitted there was some fatigue, but that it was all mental, not physical.

“Physically, I actually feel way better this year than last,” he said. “If you're fatigued physically, that's on you. That's not on anything else. But mentally, it does catch up. Just that little extra fire that you have, sometimes you take things for granted and you go through the motions a bit, which you never want to do because we're in a pretty lucky situation playing in the NHL, but human nature kind of takes over sometimes.”

Holtby further explained his mental fatigue was from, “trying to be too perfect, trying to play outside my means I guess and that's something that never really goes well. I think just the adjustment from the start of the season until now, I think I was just putting a little bit too much pressure on myself and that usually wears on you and exhausts you in the end. I think that's a good lesson to learn.”

Luckily for Washington, Holtby’s current struggles have not hurt the team. Philipp Grubauer has been phenomenal in Holtby’s stead and, in fact, has statistically been one of the top netminders in the league.


Since Nov. 1, among goalies who have played at least 20 games, Grubauer’s .937 save percentage and 1.88 GAA both rank as the best in the NHL.

For some, this means there is now a goalie controversy in Washington. For Holtby, however, he actually now feels less pressure than before because of Grubauer’s success.

“[Grubauer’s] been outstanding for us,” Holtby said, “This little stretch here, he's held our team together and got us some key wins. That takes a lot of pressure off the rest of us.”

That may be surprising to hear considering Grubauer is making a legitimate case to be the team’s starter heading into the postseason. But Holtby isn’t thinking about that. In fact, thinking too much about the future is exactly why he struggled so much in the first place.

All Holtby is thinking about now is the game in front of him.

“I think tonight's more just the moment at hand,” he said. “Don't worry about past or future or whatever. It's just getting back to being comfortable out there and just playing. You're out there to compete and compete for your team and that's it.”

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