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.
MORE CAPITALS: STANLEY CUP POWER RANKINGS