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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.

RELATED: CAPITALS vs. MAPLE LEAFS SERIES PREVIEW

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

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Defense optional as Caps handed 8-5 loss in Chicago

Defense optional as Caps handed 8-5 loss in Chicago

The Chicago Blackhawks handed the Capitals their fifth straight loss on Sunday in an ugly 8-5 defeat. All five of Washington's goals came from defensemen as the team's top forwards continued to struggle.

Here are five reasons the Caps lost.

Missed early opportunities

The game got off to a great start. Tom Wilson fed Jakub Vrana in the middle for a great early opportunity and Lars Eller had another shot with the rebound. Washington also got a power play less than two minutes into the game and was brilliant with the setup, keeping the puck in the zone for the full two minutes and getting a number of high-quality opportunities.

But they didn’t score and that soon loomed very large.

Brandon Saad put Chicago on the board 6:36 into the first and Patrick Kane scored 80 seconds later to make it 2-0, thus erasing the Caps’ strong start.

The goals have been hard to come by for the Caps so when they had the opportunity to take the early lead, they absolutely had to finish. They didn’t and the game got away from them as a result.

A bad play by Madison Bowey

Bowey will be cringing at the replay of the Saad goal for a while. Saad broke the puck out of the defensive zone and carried it into the neutral zone. Bowey had a bead on him until Saad cut to the center. Suddenly Bowey was caught flat footed. He reached for Saad with a weak stick check which Saad easily fought through with no real resistance and he was in on net. He finished the play with the game’s first goal.

 An own-goal

This was really the moment when you realized this was not going to be a good day for Washington.

Down 2-0, Brooks Orpik managed to sneak a softy through goalie Colin Delia to make it 2-1. Just 28 seconds later, however, bad luck struck the Caps yet again.

Dmitry Orlov and Jonathan Toews battled for the puck right in front of the crease and it bounced into he air. Orlov swiped at it with his glove to try to clear it from danger, but instead knocked it right over Holtby and into the net. The own goal made it 3-1 and signaled that Washington was in for a long day.

An ill-advised penalty

This game felt like it quickly was getting out of hand. Somehow, however, the Caps managed to keep things close. Dmitry Orlov snuck another squeaker through Delia in the second and John Carlson fired a one-timer early in the third to make the score 4-3. All of a sudden, the Caps had signs of life. With all the momentum on their side, however, Nicklas Backstrom was whistled for hooking Toews just 23 seconds later.

You could tell what was about to happen.

Sure enough, Kane scored 13 seconds into the power play to restore the Blackhawks’ two-goal lead.

The Toews hat trick

Once again, Washington tried to battle back. Matt Niskanen scored with just over six minutes remaining in the game, the fifth goal from a Caps’ defenseman, to pull the score to 6-5. Toews provided the coffin nail just over a minute later with an absolutely brutal play on Orlov.

Toews entered the offensive zone and Orlov took an awful approach. Toews finessed the puck right in front of Orlov which he should have been able to easily sweep away. Instead, he whiffed completely allowing Toews to regain the puck, step past Orlov and fired it under the pad and into the net.

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Devante Smith-Pelly named a starter in return to Chicago after ugly racial taunts

Devante Smith-Pelly named a starter in return to Chicago after ugly racial taunts

The top line for the Capitals on Sunday against the Chicago Blackhawks is Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, but the starting lineup is Ovechkin, Backstrom and Devante Smith-Pelly. Why the change?

It all has to do with the last time the Caps visited Chicago nearly a year ago.

On Feb. 17, 2018, Washington went into the United Center and were obliterated by the Blackhawks 7-1. But that wasn’t the ugliest thing to happen that night.

While sitting in the penalty box, Devante Smith-Pelly faced racial taunts from some Chicago fans who began chanting “basketball, basketball” at him.

In the wake of the incident, Smith-Pelly handled himself about as gracefully as one could. So, in the team’s return to Chicago Sunday, head coach Todd Reirden felt he should be on the ice for the national anthem.

According to Pierre McGuire during the game broadcast, the idea came from Oshie himself, who advocated that Smith-Pelly start in his place.

The starters traditionally stand on the ice for the anthem while the rest of the players stand at the bench.

Smith-Pelly has remained active against racism in the sport. He and teammate John Carlson invited a youth hockey team whose lone African-American player had faced racial taunts during a game to the Caps’ game on Monday.

Sunday’s move by Reirden is a classy tribute to Smith-Pelly who handled an ugly situation about as well as one could. 

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