If you go simply by regular-season points, the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series between the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals and the wild-card Toronto Maple Leafs is the biggest mismatch of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Then again, the Capitals have a history of disappointing in the postseason. They are heavy series favourites on Sports Interaction NHL odds.
Toronto Maple Leafs at Washington Capitals, Game 1
Stanley Cup Playoffs Series odds: Washington -556, Toronto +315
Game 1 odds: Capitals -230, Leafs +190
Game 1 total: 5.5
Date: Thursday, April 13, 7 p.m. ET
Location: Verizon Center, Washington, D.C.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Even if the Leafs were to be swept in this series, it has been a highly successful season. Toronto (40-27-15) is in the playoffs for the first time since 2013 and its 95 points were the franchise’s most since 2004. The Maple Leafs didn’t reach 70 points the past two seasons.
Toronto, though, didn’t have to be in the situation of playing the league’s best regular-season team. Had the Leafs gotten a single point in their regular-season finale at home vs. Columbus, a 3-2 loss, then they would have jumped Boston for third in the Atlantic Division and instead be playing Ottawa, a much more manageable opponent.
The Maple Leafs finished fifth in the NHL in scoring at 3.0 goals per game led by sure-fire Calder Trophy winner Auston Matthews, who led the team with 40 goals and 69 points. The goals were tied for second in the league (four behind Matthews’ idol Sidney Crosby) and the most for a rookie since Washington’s Alex Ovechkin had 52 in 2005-06. Matthews’ performance overshadowed that of another Leafs rookie Mitch Marner, who had 19 goals and team-leading 42 assists. Thanks in large part to the kids, Toronto was second in the NHL on the power play at 23.8 percent.
Defensively, the Leafs were 10th on the penalty kill (82.5 percent) and 22nd in goals-against at 2.9 gpg. Frederik Andersen, in his first season with Toronto, was 33-16-14 with a 2.67 GAA and .918 save percentage. Andersen was injured on Saturday against Pittsburgh but practiced Tuesday and will be good to go. The Leafs do have some injury questions to defensemen Roman Polak and Nikita Zaitsev, both of whom missed practice Tuesday.
Toronto was 1-2 vs. the Capitals this season. Marner led the team with five points (two goals, three assists). Matthews had a goal and two assists. Andersen played in two of the games and was 1-0-1 with a 4.00 GAA and .875 save percentage.
The Maple Leafs are +1400 to win the Eastern Conference.
Washington (55-19-8) won the Presidents’ Trophy and Metropolitan Division for the second straight season, finishing with 118 points. Only eight of the Presidents’ Trophy-winning teams (it has been handed out since 1985-86) have gone on to win the Stanley Cup. The Caps also led the NHL with a goals differential of plus-81.
Last year, the Capitals finished with 120 points but were beaten by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in six games in the conference semifinals. Playoff failures have been a monkey on the back of Ovechkin, one of the greatest scorers in NHL history.
His teams have yet reach a conference finals despite Ovechkin’s regular-season brilliance. The Russian had a bit of a down year by his lofty standards with 33 goals, his fewest in a non-lockout year. Ovechkin was second in the league in shots and had 36 assists, his most since 2010-11. To be fair, Ovechkin’s ice time was cut a bit this year to keep him fresh for the playoffs. The Capitals finished third in scoring (3.2 gpg) and on the power play (23.1 percent). Nicklas Backstrom led the team with 86 points and 63 assists. Washington had five players with at least 50 points.
Braden Holtby is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, and he’s in the running for another. Holtby tied for first in the NHL in wins (42), was second in GAA (2.07) and third in save percentage (.925). He might come up short to Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky for the Vezina this time. The Caps were the league’s best defensive team in allowing 2.2 goals per game and seventh on the penalty kill (83.8 percent). The Caps also got the best player available at the trade deadline in Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. Truly no weaknesses on this team.
In the three regular-season games vs. Toronto, Justin Williams and Evgeny Kuznetsov led Washington with four points each. Ovechkin had a goal and two assists. Holtby was 0-1-0 in two games (one in relief) with a 5.39 GAA and .844 save percentage.
The Capitals are +200 favourites to win the East.
Leafs vs. Capitals Predictions
If Washington doesn’t at least reach the East Finals, there will be significant turnover in the offseason as management is tired of the playoff flops. The Capitals have not advanced past the second round since making their lone Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 1998.
Toronto had the lowest winning percentage (.378) in the league in one-goal games, and that’s a recipe for disaster in the playoffs because most games are decided by one goal. The Leafs have an incredibly bright future, but Washington wins in five to advance and face Pittsburgh again.