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Toronto not scared of daunting first round playoff matchup against Washington

Toronto not scared of daunting first round playoff matchup against Washington

If the Toronto Maple Leafs are worried about having to play the best team in the NHL, they’re not showing it.

On Sunday, the Maple Leafs had the chance to earn third place in the Atlantic Division. All they needed was one point in their final regular season game. Instead, they lost in regulation to the Columbus Blue Jackets and slid back into the second wild card spot thus setting up a series with Washington.

Granted, for a Toronto team that was not expected to reach the postseason this year, it would be hard to be disappointed, but that doesn’t make the task for a young Maple Leafs team of somehow finding a way to beat the Caps any less daunting.

“They are big, they are strong, they are fast, they have been beaten a number of times in the playoffs, so they are battle-tested to say the least,” Toronto head coach Mike Babcock said, “and they are as hungry as any team in the NHL and playing as good.”

“They’re the best team in the league,” rookie phenom Auston Matthews said. “Obviously they’re really talented. …  We have to be ready to compete, ready to work hard.”

RELATED: Playoff Power Rankings: Who is the team to beat?

But while the Leafs may be saying the right things, they are also making it very clear that they aren’t scared of Washington.

“Scare us? Nah, I don’t think they should,” Matthews said. “They’re a good team, but they’re not unbeatable.”

“The playoffs are not going to be easy no matter how you skin the cat,” defenseman Connor Carrick said. “So let’s go to work. We’re going to go into someone’s building and try to give them hell.

A former Cap himself, Carrick also knows what’s at stake for Washington this season.

“It’s a big year for them, a lot on the line. I know teams talk about opportunities and windows and all that, and this looks like some prime years for some of their better players so there is a lot of pressure on them to come out.”

That’s the interesting part of these early matchups between contenders and teams like Toronto. Yes, the Caps are the heavy favorites, but a lot of pressure comes with that. Toronto, meanwhile, has no expectations. Just getting to this point is an accomplishment.

That can be a very freeing feeling. The Leafs are playing with house money while the weight of the world rests on Washington’s shoulders. Is that enough for an upset? No, but that is how the frontrunners lose control of a series. If Toronto wins just one of the first two games in Washington, the pressure will build for the Caps while the confidence will grow for the Leafs.

Suddenly, the underdog begins to believe they can win.

Judging by the players’ early thoughts on this series, it certainly sounds as if the Leafs already do.

Said defenseman Jake Gardiner, “You gotta beat the best at some point so might as well do it in the first round.”

MORE CAPITALS: NHL 2017 Capitals Playoff schedule

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How former Capital Sergei Gonchar helped the Penguins win Game 1

How former Capital Sergei Gonchar helped the Penguins win Game 1

Hockey is a game of organized chaos.

Sure, pucks can take some unexpected bounces, but a lot of what you see on the ice doesn’t happen by accident.

Trailing 2-0 early in the third period of Game 1, Patric Hornqvist got the Pittsburgh Penguins on the board with a deflection that scuttled past Braden Holtby.

You may dismiss the play at first glance as a lucky deflection off a wide shot, but it actually was much more coordinated than that.

The play starts with defenseman Justin Schultz holding the puck at the blue line. He buys time, sees Hornqvist and fires a wrister at the net. The shot is not going on net, but the net isn’t the target.

You can see the play here:

Schultz is specifically aiming to put the puck in a position for Hornqvist to deflect it on goal.

“Justin does a great job just changing his angle, having some patience and just delivering pucks down to the net that gives our forwards an opportunity to get a stick on it,” head coach Mike Sullivan said after the game.

According to the coach, it is a play the Penguins practice daily and one that is reminiscent of former Capital Sergei Gonchar who routinely made smart plays from the blue line to set up his teammates.

Gonchar was one of the top offensive defensemen in the league over a playing career that spanned from 1994 to 2015. He recorded 811 points in his NHL career, 416 of which came during his 10 seasons with Washington.

Now, however, he serves as an assistant coach for the Penguins helping the defensemen practice plays just like the one Schultz made to set up Hornqvist.

“Sergei is so good at helping those guys with the subtleties of the game and just those little skill sets along the offensive blue line,” Sullivan said. "I don't know that there was anybody better in his generation than Sergei was and he does a great job at relaying some of those subtitles to our guys and those guys, they work at it daily.”

Deflections are obviously very difficult for a goalie to handle. It is nearly impossible to react to the puck’s mid-air change of direction. A goalie has to be positioned perfectly to make the save. It also gives shooters at the blue line more targets. Rather than shooting just at the 42x78 inches of the net, players can shoot on net or in the shooting lane of any of their teammates anywhere on the ice. Essentially, the entire offensive zone becomes a potential target.

There’s a reason the Penguins have been as good as they are for as long as they have. They are not getting lucky bounces, they are creating their own deflections thanks in part to the expertise of the former Cap.

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3 reasons why the Caps lost to the Penguins in Game 1

3 reasons why the Caps lost to the Penguins in Game 1

If you had to boil down the playoff history of the Washinton Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins into one game, Game 1 certainly seemed to fit the bill.

The Capitals had their chances, they got good performances from star players and all of it came to naught as they were once again foiled by the Penguins in a 3-2 loss.

Here's Washington let this game slip away.

3 Reasons Why the Capitals lost Game 1 to the Penguins:

1. Missed chances

The Caps were buzzing in the first period.

Already up 1-0, Dmitry Orlov and Alex Ovechkin had an opportunity to add a second goal early on a 2-on-1. Orlov faked the shot then passed to Ovechkin who had a wide open net to shoot at…but he missed. Ovechkin doesn’t miss too many of those shots. Despite how good the Caps looked in the first period, they got only six pucks through to goalie Matt Murray and took only a 1-0 lead into the dressing room. In the second period, Devante Smith-Pelly was denied an empty net rebound by Murray (more on that later). We all knew the push was coming. We’ve seen this all play out before.

Simply put, Washington did not convert on its opportunities when they had control of the game. A two-goal cushion was not enough to take the wind out of Pittsburgh's sails nor was it enough to survive the three-goal flurry that was to come.

2. A five-minute snowball in the third period

When the push finally came, it came fast.

In a stretch that lasted for less than five minutes, Pittsburgh scored three times to turn a 2-0 Caps lead into a 3-2 deficit. Patrick Hornqvist deflected in a shot from Justin Schultz at 2:59, Sidney Crosby netted a pass from Jake Guentzel at 5:20 and Guentzel got a deflection goal of his own at 7:48. That is a span of 4:49. Pittsburgh’s momentum snowballed into three quick goals which carried them to the win.

Braden Holtby was brilliant for 55:11, but those 4:49 were enough to doom the Caps.

3. Matt Murray

As good as Holtby was, Murray was better. Despite allowing a goal just 17 seconds in, he recovered very well in what was a 32-save performance. You can put some of this game on Washington’s inability to convert on its chances, but you also have to give credit to the Penguins’ netminder as well who came up with some big-time saves to keep his team in it. The biggest was in the second period when he extended the arm and blocked what looked like an easy goal for Smith-Pelly with the glove of his blocker.

As hard as it was to beat Murray when the Caps were ahead, he was unbeatable when his team finally gave him a lead to work with.

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