Capitals-Maple Leafs Game 4 preview: Washington seeks to ‘change the narrative’

Capitals fans are feeling that old, familiar panic set in. Washington is the top seed and yet has been taken to overtime in all three playoff games, two of which were crushing losses. The young Maple Leafs look scrappy, hungry and confident, and they get to play Game 4 on their home ice in Toronto. Lose, and a 3-1 deficit puts the Caps on the brink. So let’s just say Game 4 is big. Really big.

Game information

Game 4: Washington Capitals (1st place, 55-19-8, 118 points) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (wild card 2, 40-27-15, 95 points)
Date and time: Wednesday, 7 p.m.
Channel: CSN
Location: Air Canada Centre, Toronto
Game 1 result: at Capitals 3, Maple Leafs 2 (OT)
Game 2 result: Maple Leafs 4, at Capitals 3 (2OT)
Game 3 result: at Maple Leafs 4, Capitals 3 (OT)
Regular season series: Capitals 2, Maple Leafs 1

Remaining schedule

Game 5: Friday in Washington, 7 p.m. (CSN)
Game 6 (if necessary): Sunday, April 23, in Toronto, TBD (TBD)
Game 7 (if necessary): Tuesday, April 25, in Washington, TBD (CSN)

Everything you need to know

>> Something appears wrong with these Capitals now that they’ve reached the postseason. The team that won 50 games during the regular season to earn the playoffs top seed is suddenly on its heels against the No. 8 seed in the East. Three hockey experts were surveyed as to what they think is the problems are for Washington: Lack of speed, mistakes and matchups. “There’s no other way to say this, but the Leafs are making Washington look slow at times, ” Pierre LeBrun said.

>> Alex Ovechkin was credited with just 15:08 of ice time on Monday night, the second lowest in a playoff contest for his career. So, why did the team’s captain play so little in a crucial Game 3 on the road? “That’s on me to get him in the ice time,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “… It wasn’t based on play. I thought Ovi was playing terrific. It’s on me to get him a little more ice time, no question.”

>> As the Capitals head into Game 4, down two games to one, there are two camps assessing the Capitals’ predicament, writes Post columnist Barry Svrluga. One group believes the deficit can be overcome. The other camp says: “Holy $&%&#@, not again.” Whichever camp you call in, one thing is certain: The Capitals are not normal participants in playoff hockey. They have their history, and it colors every tense situation.

>> The Capitals now face a crossroads between champions and chokers, writes Post columnist Thomas Boswell. They trail 2-1. They play Wednesday night in Toronto. All year the Caps have yammered about how they want to win a Stanley Cup and that, without a doubt, they have the team character, depth of talent and lack of weaknesses to grab that Cup. Now they need to prove it.

>> Overall, the Caps have faced a 2-1 series deficit 15 times in their history. They are 7-8 in the Game 4’s that followed (4-3 at home, 3-5 on the road). And so we dug deep into the team’s media guide to search for glimmers of hope anywhere we could find them. At best, it’s a mixed bag. At worst … well, no one needs a worst-case-scenario explainer for the Caps.

>> If you’re a Capitals fan who feels like you’ve seen this horror film too many times before, well, that’s because you have, at least relative to fans of other NHL teams. Since Alex Ovechkin made his postseason debut in 2007-08, the Capitals have lost 17 of their 87 playoff games in overtime, which is more than any other team during that span.

>> Not great news: Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner will not play in Game 4 because of an undisclosed upper-body injury, Coach Barry Trotz said. Alzner also missed Monday night’s game, a 4-3 overtime loss, and he didn’t skate during the team’s optional practice on Tuesday afternoon.

>> It’s surprising to see a wild-card team get the series lead against the NHL’s best team from the regular season, but there’s a pretty clear cause for Washington’s deficit in the series. Through three games, the Capitals have done a very poor job of limiting Toronto’s scoring chances, especially from the high-danger areas like the slot and near the crease. That is a huge change from the regular season and one that is helping an already potent Maple Leafs offense look even more deadly.

>> “I think the way this is being coached by Mike Babcock right now, I’d say Mike Babcock is running the Capitals’ show right now, he’s changing their players when you look at what’s going on with the line deployments,” said Comcast SportsNet analyst Alan May. “Alexander Ovechkin only had 15 minutes last night. I thought Alexander Ovechkin was flying, and he needed to be on the ice with [T.J.] Oshie and [Nicklas] Backstrom a lot more five-on-five.”

>> Make no mistake: The Maple Leafs shattered the Capitals in Game 3 — with Auston Matthews and Co. finally breaking through — but Washington also hurt itself, squandering power play opportunities and a pair of two-goal leads.

>> For a Washington team that has been defined by its early postseason exits, how does it defend against that doubt creeping in now, a top seed trailing the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card team with the next game on the road? “Until we change the narrative, that’s going to be the question,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “It’s up to us to change it. You can’t talk about it. You just have to go and do it.”

>> It might not feel like it now, but Game 3 did have some good moments. One was absolutely incredible: Braden Holtby charging out of goal to make a mind-boggling, diving save. Catch up with all the highlights and, yes, lowlights with our best and worst analysis.

>> Welcome home, kid. Welcome home. “It’s convenient,” said Tom Wilson’s father. That’s about the best you can say about this situation, one in which a kid who grew up playing at a rink five miles north of Air Canada Centre is trying to beat his hometown team in that very building in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

>> “Can we talk people off the ledge?” host Jill Sorenson asked early in Comcast SportsNet’s Caps postgame show Monday night. Uh, good luck with that …

>> On a lighter note, have you ever wondered why they’re called the Toronto Maple Leafs and not Maple Leaves? Yeah? Well, don’t worry: We asked around on your behalf.

>> “We’ve been chasing this series a little bit,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said after Saturday’s loss. To regain control, one tweak Trotz could make is swapping his top two centers, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, in an effort to jump start the top line while giving Toronto a different look.

>> The expectation was that the Capitals would have an easy time against the Maple Leafs, who didn’t clinch their postseason berth until the second-to-last game. But to Washington’s credit, it never underestimated the young, feisty Maple Leafs. “I think it’s exactly what we thought it would be coming in,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said.

>> A decade ago, before a trip to Washington carried all kinds of stakes and expectations, the empty, untouched ice made William Nylander feel like a professional hockey player. He was 11 years old then and his father, Michael Nylander, played for the Capitals. “You see those guys doing it. You look up to them, and you think they are so cool,” William Nylander said. “It made me want to get there, and it also made me think it was possible.” That ambition eventually led Nylander to the Maple Leafs, the team now pushing the top-seeded Capitals in the first round.

>> Maybe you need a distraction from the action on the ice? Meet the Toronto super fan who paints his face with a maple leaf, shaves the Stanley Cup into the top of the head and “GO LEAFS” into the back of his head, and dyes both that hair and the hair on his chin different shades of blue.

>> By the time the Caps won Game 1 in overtime on a top-shelf shot barely under the crossbar by their least likely sniping threat, Tom Wilson, The Post’s Tom Boswell muttered to himself, “Am I really ready for this?” It’s doubtful that he is, and it’s unlikely that many Washingtonians have any idea what we are all in for.

>> The Post’s Dan Steinberg argues that the Capitals actually deserve to win the Stanley Cup this year: “There’s not much more you can say about the most complete Capitals team we’ve ever seen. They had the most points in the NHL this season, the best goal differential, the fewest goals allowed, the most wins at home. They had the best goal differential in the first period, and the best goal differential in the third period. They had 59 points in their first 41 games, and 59 points in their last 41 games. They were the best hockey team out there, and it wasn’t that close.”

Let’s just say Game 4 is a must-win. (John McDonnell / The Washington Post)

Capitals Fans: Ohfuckohshitfuckfuckfuck

Capitals fans: Now that you’re down a game to the eighth-seeded Leafs, in a series that was just supposed to be a warm-up for the real opportunities to choke, how’re those sphincters? Are they so desperately clenched that not even a molecule can pass through, giving you that familiar tummy ache of despair? Or have you lost all control of it and are just spraying your waste everywhere, much the same as you fear your team might metaphorically do?

Hm, that seems correct.

(Things got a little calmer later on, presumably as the numbing effects of alcohol took over.)

Caps-Leafs is a remarkable matchup of franchises with baggage and fanbases with complexes, but they are not the same. Washington fans are used to being promised something good and having it yanked away. Toronto fans know never to expect anything good. (Please remember that the only time in the last 14 years the Leafs were here, it ended like this.)

But this was supposed to be clean. Leafs fans, never particularly known for moderation, seemed to understand that this team is going to be insanely good within a couple years, but they’re not there yet. This was to be playoff seasoning for a young roster, but the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Caps were just too talented to hope for anything more than a good, tough series.

“This isn’t pressure,” Nazem Kadri said Monday night. “This is fun for us.”
Well, after three overtime games, and Tyler Bozak’s tip-in winner last night, we’re definitely not where we thought we’d be.

The Leafs are not the better team thus far in this series, but nearly as miraculously, they are absolutely hanging with the Caps. The shots and scoring chances slightly favor Washington, but only slightly. Considering playoff series can be crapshoots even before games go to overtime, the Leafs can absolutely win this thing by playing as they have, and they wouldn’t even need particularly great luck to do so.

We are getting ahead of ourselves. Two games to one is an insurmountable deficit only if the series was spiritually insurmountable before it started, which, maybe. The Caps are still the better team, and for whatever it’s worth, they are still favored by Vegas in this series (though they have ceded their spot as Cup favorites to the Penguins).

But man, we’ve been here before. Not that all these players have, and not that past disappointment necessarily has any influence on future results. But there’s a hint of self-fulfillment with this. Even if the players do not know or care about the Caps’ track record for coming up short in the postseason, they are inevitably asked about it, which can lead to thinking about it, which can potentially lead to playing tight—the opposite of what the Leafs are doing right now. “I think it’s an outside-the-room-driven narrative,” said Washington defenseman John Carlson, but by definition, whatever question he was answering had been brought inside the room.

The coverage in D.C. today is every bit as much about the fear of a playoff collapse as it is about the actual hockey being played. (Tom Wilson’s dad! Aren’t you proud of your son, appearing for the league’s best team against his childhood team, in front of friends and family in his hometown? Or are you scared of the Caps shitting the bed like they always do?) This stuff, if even just by osmosis, can become real.

I still like the Caps here, because I’m an idiot, but I’m not so much of an idiot to let two wins make me believe in the Leafs. The Hockey Gods—a useful term for a dramatic narrative applied post-hoc, but not an actual agent of action—have historically denied both these franchises the painlessness of clean ends. We are now beyond the possibility of that. Toronto hopes are up. Washington fears are up. Someone’s going to get hurt.

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