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Capitals vs. Maple Leafs Playoffs 2017: Three reasons to be confident in the Caps against the Maple Leafs

Capitals vs. Maple Leafs Playoffs 2017: Three reasons to be confident in the Caps against the Maple Leafs

Earlier I wrote 3 reasons why the Toronto Maple Leafs could do the unthinkable and pull off the upset over the Washington Capitals. As Game 1 draws closer (7 p.m., CSN), let's take a more positive look. Here are three reasons why you should feel confident that Washington will be able to get the job done in the first round.

1. Braden Holtby

One thing Washington did not have in the infamous Montreal series of 2010 was a dependable goalie. Jose Theodore started the first two games of the series but was pulled in Game 2 with a .875 save percentage and 3.70 GAA. That’s bad. Semyon Varlamov took over for Theodore and was better, but still not great with a .908 save percentage and 2.41 GAA. Braden Holtby currently has the best save playoff save percentage ever at .938. Varlamov was not the ultimate downfall of the Caps in 2010, but Washington led the series 3-1 after four games. How different would that series have been with better goaltending through those first four games?

RELATED: Who Trotz believes can be an x-factor for the Caps

2. Toronto’s defense

The Maple Leafs seem to have an aversion to two-goal leads given how often they seemed to give them away. Of all 16 playoff teams, no one allowed more goals per game in the regular season (2.85) than Toronto. That defense also took a hit with the news that Nikita Zaitsev will miss Game 1, Washington’s offense should be able to make short work of the Maple Leafs’ blue line.

3. Toronto’s Inexperience

The Caps may have struggled to go deep into the postseason the last few years, but over time they still have accumulated a good amount of playoff experience. Coming into this series, Washington has 1,017 games of combined playoff experience. Toronto? Only 292. Experience matters in the postseason. Inexperience is why things spiraled out of Columbus’ control Wednesday against Pittsburgh. Inexperience is why Edmonton gave up a 2-0 lead at home against San Jose on Wednesday. Inexperience is a big reason why no one is giving Toronto much of a chance in this series.

MORE CAPITALS: Trotz mum on Carlson's status for Game 1

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NHL goalie for a day: Gavin McHale suits up as emergency goalie for the Caps in Winnipeg

NHL goalie for a day: Gavin McHale suits up as emergency goalie for the Caps in Winnipeg

Wednesday’s game in Winnipeg was a complete nightmare in terms of injuries for the Caps. There was a silver lining, however, as the Caps' nightmare turned into a dream night for local goalie Gavin McHale.

Prior to the game, the team announced Pheonix Copley would get the surprise start due to an upper-body injury to Braden Holtby. Head coach Todd Reirden said after the game that Holtby suffered the injury while working on the ice with goalie coach Scott Murray earlier in the day.

There is an emergency goalie available at every game for either team in case of situations such as the one the Caps faced Wednesday. The most famous example came in March when Scott Foster, a 36-year-old accountant, not only dressed for the Chicago Blackhawks but actually had to play when the team lost both Anton Forsberg and Collin Delia to injury.

With only one healthy goalie on the roster and no time to recall anyone from Hershey to get to Winnipeg, the Caps had to call on Winnipeg’s emergency goalie. Enter Winnipeg native McHale.

To their credit, the Caps made the best of a bad situation and welcomed McHale with open arms.

“I think the biggest thing is just every guy in here was so nice to me and made me feel so good, just to be a good person, it’s a really important piece of what hockey players are,” McHale said. “This is a pretty successful team last year so to be welcomed in like that in a bit of a crazy situation was a pretty nice feeling.”

“Pretty successful last year”? OK, bit of an understatement there, but sure.

Anyway….

McHale, 31, is the goaltending coach for the women’s hockey team at the University of Manitoba. The last time he played competitive hockey was in 2014-15 as a member of the Warren Mecs from the South Eastern Manitoba Hockey League.

He also may or may not be a Jets fan.

“I’m not at liberty to say that right now,” McHale said.

Interestingly enough, lightning has struck twice for McHale as this was not the first time he has been called upon to be a backup in an NHL game. He suited up for the Colorado Avalanche in February as the emergency goalie when Jonathan Bernier appeared to suffer an injury against the Jets. Somehow, McHale did not get to keep his jersey from that night. This time, hopefully he will able to save his Caps sweater as a keepsake.

“If I get to keep it, it’s getting framed really fast,” McHale said. “There’s a couple puck marks on it too actually surprisingly.”

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Injuries hit Capitals hard in 3-1 loss to Winnipeg

Injuries hit Capitals hard in 3-1 loss to Winnipeg

The Capitals were already facing one of the toughest back-to-back challenges in the NHL. Then they found out their starting goalie would not play and less than nine minutes into the game lost their No. 1 center. 

That about summed up a 3-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday. The last time an NHL team swept a back-to-back set of games against the Jets and Minnesota Wild was 2012. 

Washington played well enough taking a 1-0 lead on a Jakub Vrana goal in the first period and the game was tied until 12:51 of the third period when a shot by Ben Chiarot skipped past goalie Pheonix Copley. The Jets added an empty-net goal to seal the win. 

The loss is one thing. Winnipeg is a tough place to play and maybe the favorite to come out of the Western Conference. But injuries have begun to mount and that’s the big takeaway. 

Holtby showed up to the rink Wednesday morning and it was assumed he’d play after Copley won the game in St. Paul against the Wild. Instead, Holtby was ruled out with an upper-body injury and the Capitals had to sign an emergency goalie – Gavin McHale, a 31-year-old assistant coach for a local women’s college hockey team in Winnipeg. That is less than ideal. 

Holtby’s injury might not be a big deal. You’ll know if Washington recalls top prospect Ilya Samsonov from AHL Hershey for Friday’s game in Denver against the Colorado Avalanche. 

“That was this morning. [Holtby] came over with our goalie coach and did a skate this morning and was not able to back up tonight or play,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. “So he was kind of a game-time decision and he wasn’t able to participate tonight.”

Holtby will be re-evaluated Thursday after he gets continuing treatment for his injury. There has to be concern about Kuznetsov, who took an elbow to the face at 8:52 of the first period from Jets forward Brandon Tanev. Kuznetsov left the game and did not return. 

That left the Caps shorthanded most of the night with Lars Eller playing center alongside Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson on the top line. Ovechkin ended up playing 24:21. Eller played 18:48 and Backstrom 21:41. Not having Kuznetsov would be an issue. He’s not a player they can replace for long. 

“Was more precautionary,” Reirden said. “Obviously a blow to the head. We had to continue to evaluate him tomorrow, but we needed to make sure he didn’t return to the game.”

Washington, of course, could look to last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs when they missed Backstrom for Game 6 during the second round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins with a hand injury and the first three games against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final.

Oshie was the final blow. He was slammed to the ice by Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey and the back of his head hit the ice. Reirden compared the play to a hit by Florida Panthers defenseman Michael Matheson on Vancouver Canucks rookie Elias Pettersson. He was suspended two games on Oct. 15.  

Oshie certainly didn’t look right. He had to stay on the ice as the Caps pushed for the tying goal with the net empty down 2-1. But it took a while for him to get back to his skates and then he wasn’t able to jump on a loose puck in the slot moments before Winnipeg put the game away at the other end of the ice with an empty-net goal. 

The result is one thing for the Capitals (8-7-3), who are still struggling to generate multiple wins in a row. The status of their three key players is more important after a 1-1-0 start to a four-game road trip. 

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