Washington Capitals, Maple Leafs Face Off in Opening Round of Playoffs

William Nylander recalls being a kid, hanging around his father's NHL team, the Washington Capitals.

There were the times Nicklas Backstrom came by for dinner. And there was the shot that has helped Alex Ovechkin score 176 more regular-season goals than anyone since his entrance into the NHL in 2005.

"His shot is amazing," says Nylander, the Maple Leafs' rookie winger, who will face his father's old team in a first-round playoff series, with Game 1 Thursday night in Washington. 

The Capitals had a pair of 30-goal-scorers in Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie, but also nine other players who managed at least 12. There is also a well-rounded blue line corps that includes Kevin Shattenkirk, the trade deadline acquisition who finished fourth among all NHL defensemen with 56 points.

Backstrom, an ace at finding "little spaces" to thread passes, according to Nylander, finished second to Connor McDavid with 63 assists and fourth overall with 86 points. Braden Holtby, meanwhile, compiled another year of Vezina Trophy consideration. 

Toronto's primary defensive tandem for handling Ovechkin and the Caps' top line, which also includes Backstrom and Oshie, is in real question with Nikita Zaitsev ruled out for Game 1 with an upper body injury. Coach Mike Babcock connected Jake Gardiner with Roman Polak at practice Wednesday and Morgan Rielly with veteran Matt Hunwick, but wasn't sure if he'd keep the pairings intact.

Frederik Andersen, who probably has to outplay Holtby for the Leafs to win the series, said it wasn't necessarily about being extra alert when Ovechkin hovered in wait, but understanding his tendencies and being prepared for them.

"He's a good player, you just need to stay above him and try to stay close to him," said Finnish winger Leo Komarov. "But he's obviously going to get his chances and you just need to (keep) the puck away from him."

The Leafs held Ovechkin to one goal and three points in three games this season, but the Caps still won twice with 12 different players scoring at least once. Babcock also won't get his choice of forward matchups until the series shifts back to Toronto next week.

Toronto will be hard-pressed to stop everyone, including Evgeny Kuznetsov (59 points), Marcus Johansson (58), and long-time playoff hero Justin Williams (24 goals), not to mention Daniel Winnik, Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky. The challenge looms even larger without Zaitsev, the team's top player in ice time.

Defensive depth is a weakness for the Leafs and they've got at least one weary defensive line -- Tyler Bozak, Mitch Marner and James van Riemsdyk -- that can be exposed, especially on the road. 

That line can certainly score and so can the Leafs, but can they stop wave upon wave of Washington's attack? 

"They're obviously the best team in the league for a reason," said Auston Matthews, the Leafs record-setting rookie and leading scorer. But, he added, "I don't think they can take us lightly. I think we've got a lot of speed and a lot of skill. I think we've surprised a lot of teams this year."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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