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Caps' top priority against Toronto will be shutting down Auston Matthews

Caps' top priority against Toronto will be shutting down Auston Matthews

As the No. 1 overall draft pick in the 2016 draft, forward Auston Matthews entered the league with lofty expectations, especially considering he was taken by one of the NHL’s flagship franchises in the Toronto Maple Leafs. Incredibly, despite how unreasonable some of those expectations may be, midway through the season Matthews is living up the hype.

“He's an elite player,” Capitals head coach Barry Trotz said after Tuesday’s morning skate. “He's got size, he's got the incredible vision and poise and hands for a young man.”

“There isn't a skill that he doesn't possess,” Matt Niskanen said.

After an incredible debut in which he scored four goals, Matthews’ production tapered off with only two goals in his next 18 games.

RELATED: Chorney remains in Caps' lineup for tilt with Leafs

But the rookie phenom has exploded again and now has 20 goals on the season including six in his last six games and two in Sunday’s Centennial Classic. He now leads all rookies in both points and goals, even Winnipeg sharpshooter Patrick Laine who has found the back of the net 19 times this season, and he’s doing it without elite level linemates.

Matthews has spent almost the entire season on a line that features Zach Hyman, a player with only 22 career points and 52 games of NHL experience to his name.

“Auston Matthews is carrying his own weight,” Trotz said. “He's not protected. He's all that and that's pretty exceptional for a 19-year-old player coming in here.”

What makes Matthews so dangerous is his vision. To a man, the Caps felt that was the most impressive skill Matthews possesses in what is clearly a loaded arsenal.

“The presence to know how a goaltender will react off a scramble play and how he knows what's going on around him and what are his options,” Trotz said. “He's able to process it at such a high rate that it makes it look really easy and it's not that easy. Trust me.”

“He's got the skill to execute the plays that he can see,” Karl Alzner said. “A lot of times you have one or the other and he seems to have them both.”

Stopping Matthews will be the Caps’ biggest priority Tuesday as he is Toronto’s leading scorer with 32 points. Pretty impressive for a 19-year-old rookie.

“We have been seeing what the hype was all last year and even before that,” Alzner said. “It's fun to watch but also [a] real fun challenge for us.”

MORE CAPITALS: NHLPA boss 'optimistic' players will participate in Olympics

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Will the Caps be able to take advantage of home ice in Game 5?

Will the Caps be able to take advantage of home ice in Game 5?

There's a saying in sports that goes, "A series doesn't start until a team loses at home." For the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets, their series won't start until someone wins at home.

Four games into the series, the road team has won every game. Columbus took Game 1 and Game 2 from Capital One Arena and the Caps answered back by winning Game 3 and Game 4 in Ohio.

"We came [to Columbus] to try to get the first one," Barry Trotz said after Thursday's win. "Did that. We came here to get the second one. Did that. All we've done is just got on even terms."

Now the series is a best of three with two of those final three games in Washington, but how much of an advantage does that really give the Caps?

"We've got to make sure that we're ready to go," Trotz said. "I think we have been since we got here. We've just got to do it at home."

The various playoff struggles the Caps have suffered in the Alex Ovechkin era have been well-documented to this point. One particularly maddening issue is the team's struggles to win at home. Since 2008, the first year the Ovechkin-led Caps made the playoffs, the team is just 28-25 in home playoff games. Since 2015, Trotz's first season as head coach, the Caps are 12-10 in Washington.

Part of that is just the nature of hockey. Upsets are prevalent in the playoffs in the NHL and home-ice advantage does not mean as much as it does in other sports. But it should mean more than 28-25.

Besides having the crowd on your side, home ice also provides matchup advantages. The home team gets the second line change at home, meaning during a stoppage in play the home coach gets the opportunity to see who the opponent puts on the ice before making his own change. For the Caps, this means getting Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen on the ice against Artemi Panarin.

Trotz has matched his top shutdown pair against Columbus' top line all series long. According to Natural Stat Trick, when Niskanen was on the ice in Game 4 he held Panarin's Corsi For percentage to 36.36. When Niskanen was not on the ice, Panarin's percentage shot up to 71.43. 

Theoretically, it should be much easier for Trotz to get those favorable matchups at home. Now all the Caps have to do is take advantage.

"Our home record hasn't been really great in the last little stretch at the end of the season here and obviously the first two games of the playoffs," Trotz said. "We owe it to our fans, we owe it to ourselves to take advantage of that."

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John Tortorella has no answers, walks out of postgame press conference after Game 4

John Tortorella has no answers, walks out of postgame press conference after Game 4

In each of the first three games of the series, the Columbus Blue Jackets always had an answer for the Washington Capitals.

The Caps built a two-goal lead in each game and Columbus was able to battle back and tie it each time.

In Game 4 on Thursday, however. the Blue Jackets had no answer in a 4-1 loss to Washington and that includes head coach John Tortorella.

"We weren't good," Tortorella said to the media after the game. "There's no sense asking me things about the game. I'm telling you, we laid an egg. I'm not going to break it down for you. We sucked. We sucked."

Tortorella is known for having some fiery interactions with the media. By his standard, Thursday's postgame presser was fairly tame.

The Capitals may have won Game 3, but Columbus certainly looked like the better team for most of the night. That was not the case in Game 4 as Washington dominated from start to finish. That led to the contentious postgame presser.

"We laid an egg," Tortorella said. "That's all I have to say, guys. I'm sorry, I'm not going to break it down for you. Nothing went well for us. It's on us, we have to figure it out and we will."

Reporters continued to press the head coach until he finally walked out.

Before you laugh too hard at this, it is important to consider that this may be a calculated move by Tortorella.

Sure, there have been times in which he has lost his temper in the past, but these outbursts may be more premeditated than we think.

Consider this. After their worst game of the series, a game in which the Blue Jackets only scored once and saw a 2-0 series lead evaporate in two games at home, we're talking about the head coach. We're not talking about the loss or the performance of the players. Instead, we are talking about Tortorella walking out on reporters.

Even if Tortorella was not willing to give any answers on Thursday, he will need to find some soon. The series now shifts back to Washington for Game 5 on Saturday with all the momentum on the Caps' side.

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