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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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Braden Holtby saved his best performance of the season for when the Caps needed it most

Braden Holtby saved his best performance of the season for when the Caps needed it most

Braden Holtby has been largely overshadowed in the headlines of the Eastern Conference Final by Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

After two games, Vasilevskiy was one of the bigger storylines for how poorly he played in giving up 10 goals in just five periods. The next three games after that, the storyline changed to how well he was suddenly playing and how he had helped the Lightning steal two wins in Washington and take a 3-2 series lead after Game 5.

Holtby was not mentioned much. His play was not the reason the Caps went up 2-0 or the reason they went down 3-2.

But if the Caps hoped to force a Game 7, they needed him to at least be a reason why they won Game 6.

Holtby responded in a big way. With his team facing elimination, Holtby registered his first shutout of both the regular season and the playoffs.

"It's a perfect time," Devante Smith-Pelly said after the game. "He's been great all year. Obviously an up-and-down year for him personally, but the way he's bounced back, he's been amazing all throughout the playoffs."

Holtby is now just the seventh goalie in NHL history to record his first shutout of the season in a game in which his team faced elimination.

Holtby, however, was not concerned with the stats or the shutout.

"The only reason it’s good is we won," Holtby said of his shutout performance. "Aside from that, it’s just good for [the media], I guess you can write about it. But for us it’s just that W."

Vasilevskiy made a number of jaw-dropping saves, especially in the first period, but Holtby matched him save for save as both teams battled for the first goal. With the score knotted at zero, Holtby made a toe save on Anthony Cirelli on a 2-on-1 opportunity to keep the Lightning off the board. He really upped his game in the third period as Tampa Bay made a late push to tie it. He turned aside 10 shots that frame including a nifty snag on Nikita Kucherov and a glorious glove save on Ondrej Palat.

Holtby's performance ensured the Caps would live to fight another day...for now.

As the series shifts back to Tampa Bay, Washington will again be facing elimination. This time, however, so will their opponents.

Anything can happen in a Game 7. In a winner-take-all game, it may come down to who has the better goalie on Wednesday and Holtby seems to be picking a good time to up his game.

"Braden has been the backbone of our hockey club," Barry Trotz said. "You can’t go anywhere without goaltending and he’s been solid. ... Braden is a true pro, he works on his game, he finds ways to make a difference and he does."

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5 reasons the Caps beat the Lightning in Game 6

5 reasons the Caps beat the Lightning in Game 6

After losing three straight, the Capitals battled back in Game 6 on Monday. With their 3-0 win, Washington forced the Eastern Conference Final into a decisive Game 7 on Wednesday.

Here is how the Caps did it.

1. Braden Holtby matched Andrei Vasilevskiy save for save

Andrei Vasilevskiy was just as great in this game as he was in the three previous, but one of the major differences in this one was that Holtby was just as good. He may not have been tested as much (Vasilevskiy made 32 saves, Holtby 24), but he was big when the team needed.

In the second period with the scored tied at 0, Holtby made one of the most critical saves perhaps of the entire season when he denied Anthony Cirelli with the toe on a 2-on-1. When the Caps took the lead, Holtby really shut the door in the third period with 10 saves to cap off what was his fifth career playoff shutout and first shutout of the entire season.

2. T.J. Oshie’s timely goal

Over halfway into the game, it looked like it was just going to be one of those nights. Caps fans know it well by now. Washington outplays their opponent, they get chance after chance and develop a whopping advantage in shots, but they run into a hot goalie and a random play suddenly turns into a goal for the other team, game and season over.

Vasilevskiy was on his way to having perhaps his best performance of the series. Considering how he played in the three games prior to Game 6, that’s saying something. The Caps were doing everything right, but he continued to make save after save. Then on the power play in the second period, John Carlson struck the inside of the post, the horn went off and the roar of the crowd gave way to dismay as the referee waved his arms to indicate there was no goal and play continued. Just seconds later, T.J. Oshie gave the Caps the 1-0 lead.

You have to wonder if doubt was starting to creep into the back of the minds of the players when that puck struck the post as they wondered what else they had to do to beat Vasilevskiy. Luckily, that feeling didn’t last long.

3. Special teams

Braydon Coburn’s tripping penalty in the second period gave Washington its only power play of the night and its first since the second period of Game 4. They had to make it count given how well Vasilveskiy was playing and they did.

Washington now has a power play goal in each of their three wins against the Lightning and no power play goals in their three losses. So yeah, it’s significant.

Tampa Bay had two opportunities of their own, but Washington managed to kill off both power plays in the penalty kill’s best performance of the series.

4. Washington’s physical game plan

On paper, the Lightning are better than the Caps in most categories. One area in which Washington has the edge, however, is physical play and it was clear very early that they intended to use that to their advantage in Game 6. Tampa Bay was pushed around and they seemed to struggle to recover.

Ovechkin was a one-man wrecking ball out there hitting everything that moved. The energy he brought with every hit was palpable and both the team and the crowd fed on it.

Washington was credited with 39 hits on the night compared to Tampa Bay’s 19. Ovechkin had four of those as did Nicklas Backstrom while Devante Smith-Pelly contributed five and Tom Wilson and Brooks Orpik each led the team with six.

5. Fourth line dagger

Tampa Bay’s fourth line was the story of Game 5, but Washington’s fourth line sealed the deal on Monday with its third period goal.

Chandler Stephenson beat out an icing call, forcing Braydon Coburn to play the puck along the wall. Jay Beagle picked it up, fed back to Stephenson who backhanded a pass for the perfect setup for Devante Smith-Pelly.

Smith-Pelly scored seven goals in the regular season. He now has four in the playoffs.

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