The Toronto Maple Leafs square up against the Presidents-Trophy-winner Washington Capitals tonight in Washington. This series is a great learning experience for the young rookies because they have absolutely no pressure on them to even win a game. In many ways, it is a lot like the beginning of the Leafs’ 2016-2017 season. No one expected a playoff contending team, they expected a slight improvement and that was all.
In seven short months, the Leafs have exceeded expectations. Auston Matthews is a franchise player, Frederik Andersen is the real deal, Mitch Marner and William Nylander can score in the NHL, and Nikita Zaitsev is a phenomenal defender. This team in the early parts of the season showed hints of their lack of experience, but as the season progressed, we saw less blown lead and more clutch moments from both rookies and veterans.
In the head to head matchups against Washington this season, they are 1-1-1 with 10 goals. The Washington Capitals have a really potent offence with Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Oshie, but Toronto has shown that they can keep up with Matthews, Nyalnder, and Marner.
The big problem for the Leafs in this series is the injuries. This team already has enough problems on defence, with Nikita Zaitsev, Roman Polak, and Frederik Andersen out indefinitely, this series is starting to look a little more impossible than it already is. Zaitsev is on the top pair every night and is the team’s minute eater. Roman Polak is the Leafs’ best penalty killing defenceman. When he was suspended for 2 games in March, you could see the drop off in quality in the Leafs’ penalty kill, especially in the game against Buffalo where they gave up 2 powerplay goals.
I don’t think that I need to explain Frederik Andersen’s importance in this series. Let me just say, the Leafs will live or die by Frederik Andersen’s health and performance if he is to return. That is not a slight at Curtis McElhinney, but let’s be real. He is no Freddie.
The playoffs are a test to see which teams can take a punch and which ones will crumble.
It’s time for the Leafs to exceed another expectation.
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