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Leafs strike early, never look back in win over Caps

Leafs strike early, never look back in win over Caps

The Caps entered Toronto on the second leg of a back-to-back and the Maple Leafs certainly looked like the fresher team, jumping on the Caps early on their way to a 4-2 win on Saturday night.

How it happened: Toronto opened the scoring less than three minutes into the game as Matt Martin beat Braden Holtby on the first shot he faced. Martin snuck in behind the defense and Mitch Marner found him right on the tape with a pass to spring the breakaway. The Leafs added to their lead in the second period as James Van Riemsdyk struck on the power play. Van Riemsdyk and Nikita Soshnikov collapsed down low on the crease and had all the time in the world to work with as John Carlson went down too early to block the shot. Van Riemsdyk was finally able to chip it past Holtby.

The coffin nail came just 22 seconds in the third. Connor Brown pickpocketed Dmitry Orlov in the defensive zone and fed Zach Hyman in the slot. Holtby made the initial save and another to deny Matt Hunwick, but Auston Matthews finally finished off the play with the rebound goal. Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson finally got the Caps on the board in the third period, but a goal by Nazem Kadri and a strong effort from goalie Frederik Andersen were enough to put the game away.

What it means: The loss drops the Caps to 5-2-1 this season in back-to-back games and snaps a five-game win streak for the Caps over the Leafs that stretched back to January of 2015. Washington is now 4-2-0 against Canadian teams this season and 4-1-0 against the Atlantic Division.

Heads up: Head coach Barry Trotz showed that he may be the toughest head coach in the NHL as he took a puck to the head in the very first shift of the game. Off the opening face off, Nikita Soshnikov redirected a puck into the Caps bench, hitting Trotz. You can watch the play here.

Slow start: The Caps have dramatically improved their starts this season, but that was not evident on Saturday. Martin’s goal came just 2:35 into the game. The Caps had scored first in 17 of 20 games heading into Saturday’s contest including their last eight. The best thing you could say about the first period is that the Caps trailed only 1-0, considering they were outshot 15-6 and took three penalties.

Powerless: Despite the rough start for the Caps, they still found themselves trailing only 2-0 midway through the second period with a golden opportunity to get right back into the game. After taking the first four penalties of the game, the Caps had three power plays in the second period including 24 seconds of a two-man advantage. Despite generating eight shots on goal, the Caps walked away empty handed as the Leafs were able to keep the score at 2-0 through 40 minutes. The Caps finished 0 for 4 for the game.

Third period struggles continue: The Caps have identified the third period to be a problem of late. In their last three games, the Caps allowed five goals. It cost them against Columbus and nearly cost them against St. Louis. Heading into the third period Saturday, the Caps trailed 2-0 and needed a strong showing in the final frame. It took Toronto just 22 seconds to score and essentially end any hope the Caps had of getting back into the game. Finishing strong is something this team desperately needs to work on.

Uh-oh: Matt Niskanen took a shift in the opening minute of the third period. That proved to be his last shift of the game. The defenseman went to the locker room and did not return to the bench. According to the team, he suffered a lower-body injury and would be re-evaluated Sunday.

Look ahead: The Caps will get a few days off before hosting the New York Islanders on Thursday. They then head to Tampa for their first meeting with the Lightning this season.

RELATED: Connolly's role emerging

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In a surprise twist, Barry Trotz takes The Hot Lap ahead of Game 7

In a surprise twist, Barry Trotz takes The Hot Lap ahead of Game 7

TAMPA—Head Coach Barry Trotz skated the hot lap prior to Wednesday’s Game 7 at Amalie Arena, taking over the superstitious tradition from captain Alex Ovechkin.

Why the change?

The Caps lost Game 5 here on Saturday. And when the Caps lose on the road—the only place where the morning-skate-starting hot lap takes place—a new skater is selected.

The weird tradition began in the first round at Nationwide Arena in Columbus when Jay Beagle grew tired of waiting for the ice to freeze over following a fresh Zamboni cut. Beagle's teammates implored him to wait a little longer for the ice to cure, but he grew impatient and took it upon himself to kick off the skate by racing around the rink, a la the fastest skater competition at the All Star Skills competition.

Ovechkin took it over prior to Game 6 in Pittsburgh because the Caps had lost Game 4 at PPG Paints Arena.

Ovechkin proudly carried on the tradition as Washington won three in a row—Game 6 in Pittsburgh and Games 1 and 2 of this series vs. Tampa Bay.

Following the Caps’ 3-2 defeat in Game 5 here, though, it was expected that a change would be made.

And on Wednesday morning the baton changed hands, with the least obvious of all the Caps busting his 55-year-old hump around the rink much to the delight of his players and assistants.

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Regardless of what happens in Game 7, these are not the 'same old Caps'

Regardless of what happens in Game 7, these are not the 'same old Caps'

These are not the same old Caps.

Heading into Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final on Monday, there was a lot of handwringing around Washington and with good reason. The Capitals were facing elimination for the first time this postseason. Of course the fans were on edge; no one wanted this run to end.

But even though the Caps are competing for the conference crown and have gotten past their archrivals to get here, the refrains leading into Game 6 were the same ones we’ve heard from past years.

 “They don’t want it enough.”

“There’s no heart.”

“Totally outcoached.”

“Chokers.”

And perhaps most damning, “Same old Caps.”

Stop it already.

Seriously, how can anyone have watched this postseason and walked away thinking this is the same Caps team?

Does no one remember the start of the season? Some people didn’t even think they would make the playoffs. Others were advocating the team trade Alex Ovechkin and start over. Yet here they are.

Finally, finally they got past the second round hump. They beat the Pittsburgh Penguins—ending their two-year reign as Stanley Cup Champions—and handed Mike Sullivan his first ever series loss as the Penguins head coach.

And no, Mike Wilbon, just because they made it past the second round doesn’t mean it’s OK to lose in the Conference Finals. But considering how they got there, they showed they have at the very least changed the narrative surrounding the Capitals.

Washington lost the first two games of its series against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round and went on to win four straight to advance. In the second round, they faced the two-time defending champions, a team they had beaten only once in the playoffs in franchise history and a team that had not lost a playoff series since 2015.

And they won.

And yet, people are acting like nothing changed with the Caps. Why? Because they lost three in a row to Tampa Bay?

OK, you've got a point. What kind of a team loses three straight in the playoffs? Hard-nosed teams with tough coaches that play the right way like Columbus or Anaheim wouldn’t let that happen to them. Oh, actually Columbus lost four in a row to the Caps and the Ducks got swept in the first round. Never mind.

Well, certainly not a team with a championship history like the Los Angeles Kings. Oh wait, never mind, the got swept by Vegas. Bad example.

Well, surely an original six team with a championship pedigree like the Boston Bruins would never let that happen. Oh yeah, they lost four straight to the same Tampa Bay team.

OK, OK, but were any of those teams really contenders this year? I mean, none of those teams were as good as Winnipeg and they won’t let themselves lose three in a row in the playoffs.

That’s because they lost four straight to Vegas in the conference final.

You see where this is going, right?

It just boggles the mind that anyone could see the game plan Barry Trotz put together in Game 6 in Pittsburgh, without three top-six forwards including Nicklas Backstrom, and win in overtime and still complain that he is always outcoached in the playoffs. He certainly wasn’t outcoached in that game or that series.

It’s baffling that anyone can see how Washington rallied past Columbus after losing Game 1 and Game 2, recovered from a disastrous Game 1 to Pittsburgh and won the first two games in Tampa Bay against a favored Lightning team and complain that this team “doesn’t want it enough.”

Chokers don’t advance to the third round. Chokers don’t beat the two-time defending champions when no one else could. Chokers don’t force seven games against a Tampa Bay team that finished off both of their prior series in just five games.

Just stop. Find a new storyline to push because this one is lazy and played out. It’s been done.

Don’t get me wrong, losing four in a row after winning Game 1 and Game 2 on the road would have really stung. With the history this team has, the fact that they finally got past Pittsburgh gave this team a feel of destiny. If they go on to lose Game 7 and end their run without a Stanley Cup or even a conference crown to show for it, that would be disappointing. No question about it.

But to say these are the “same old Caps” if they lose to Tampa Bay? That’s ridiculous. They have already put those demons to rest. Three straight losses to the Lightning don’t change that and neither will whatever happens in Game 7.

Regardless of what happens on Wednesday, whether the Caps win or lose, no one should come out and say these are the same old Caps. They have already proven that’s not the case.

Those Caps are gone. Now let’s see how far these Caps can go.

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