Upsets aren’t unheard of during NHL playoffs, yet the Capitals’ struggles against a young Toronto Maple Leafs’ team that squeaked into the playoffs (after missing out since 2012-13) has turned some heads. ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun writes that he interviewed several head coaches for their analysis as to how the Maple Leafs have threatened the top-ranked team in the NHL.
Most coaches believe it’s Toronto’s speed and quickness that has frustrated Washington so much. That quickness has disrupted their game since the Capitals are not considered to be the fastest team in the league.
“Listen, Washington is a great hockey club, but they’re not the quickest team in the league,” a Western Conference coach said. “And the Maple Leafs are using the quickness they have, they have a lot of foot speed and they’re using it. They’re constantly putting pressure on Washington all over the ice. Toronto is so well-coached as far as puck support that Washington can’t get it stopped in the offensive zone — Toronto exits too quickly. Everything they’re doing, from play without the puck and play with the puck; it’s got quickness in it and it’s really giving Washington a challenge.”
In fact, according to another Eastern Conference coach, it’s Washington’s lack of speed that may be making the difference. “[The Caps are] a structured team, they’re experienced, they’ve got moxie, and I think they’re heavy, probably the heaviest team in the East,” said the coach over the phone. “But the speed factor has given them problems, like it did with Pittsburgh last year, where there’s no time and space.”
LeBrun writes another Eastern Conference coach suggests that Toronto is doing a “disciplined job of getting pucks in and making Wash’s D have to go back for pucks. They are dumping intelligently to areas where their speed is forechecking! Using five guys on the forecheck [their weak-side D is going down the wall hard] creates o-zone time, makes Washington’s studs play in their zone. Which sucks for them.”
Yet, another major factor to Toronto’s success is the play of Frederik Andersen. LeBrun said a Western Conference GM told him that Andersen would need a 94 percent save percentage to pull off an upset of the Capitals. After two games and 88 saves of 94 shots, Anderson is sporting a .936 save percentage. “The scary thing is in the 3rd and OT of Game 2, he was getting better and better, and it looked easier,” the second Eastern Conference coach said via text. “He has been the best player in the series — not even close.”
It was also suggested that the Capitals have failed to dominate in the offensive zone and haven’t been able to capitalize on the Leafs’ main weakness, which is their defense.
“We haven’t really seen Washington hem the Leafs into their zone that much,” said the first Eastern Conference coach, “like, make Toronto defend for a long period of time. I’ve been surprised so far that we haven’t seen Washington possess the puck more and make Toronto defend. It’s almost been like a track meet. A lot of Washington’s offense so far has been [power play] or rush plays as opposed to long, strong, heavy shifts that probably I think would give Toronto trouble.”
Talent may also be a factor says a third Eastern conference coach. Toronto may be young, but they may be one of the most talented teams out there. It just took them a while to figure it out. “I think Toronto right now is the third-most talented team in the East,” the coach said Sunday over the phone. “Now, they’re young, but who cares? That was a tough draw for Washington. Outside of Pittsburgh and Washington, to me the Leafs are the third-most talented group in the East.”