Maple Leafs on verge of elimination after OT loss to Washington Capitals
Washington Capitals centre Evgeny Kuznetsov (92) celebrates his goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs with Capitals centre Marcus Johansson (90) and Capitals right wing Justin Williams (14) during second period NHL hockey round one playoff action in Toronto on Monday, April 17, 2017. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press
Published Friday, April 21, 2017 7:22AM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, April 22, 2017 1:46AM EDT
WASHINGTON -- Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock uttered the same phrase to each and every staff member at Verizon Center as he strode to the team bus following an overtime loss that put his team on the brink of elimination.
"See you in a couple days," Babcock said.
The Leafs fell 2-1 in Game 5 to go down 3-2 in their best-of-seven series with Washington after Justin Williams beat Frederik Andersen five-hole 1:04 into yet another overtime. But that didn't mean Babcock, or his players, felt like hope was lost with Game 6 ahead at the Air Canada Centre on Sunday night.
Quite the opposite given how tight this series continues to be.
All five games, most tellingly, have been decided by a single goal with four of the five finishing in OT. Washington has scored 16 goals overall to 15 for Toronto. The two teams have fired exactly 175 shots each.
"I don't think we're hanging our heads on this," Auston Matthews said.
"We understand that we played a pretty good road game and somehow they just found a way," added Nazem Kadri, who had a noisy night in defeat. "That's what good teams do and we've got to respond heading back to Toronto."
This was a much tighter affair than the four that preceded it. Space was limited, the pace slowed down and scoring chances were relatively few in number between two of the highest scoring teams in the NHL during the regular season. Shots were 27-25 at the end of regulation.
Washington went ahead at the tail-end of a first period that turned noisy on account of Kadri, who tried to get a piece of Alex Ovechkin near the Capitals blue line, but instead struck the left knee of the Washington captain.
Kadri was penalized for tripping while Ovechkin had to be helped off the ice, putting no pressure on his left leg.
The Verizon Center crowd, many clad in red Ovechkin jerseys, howled at the foul -- which appeared to better meet the criteria for clipping as an "act of throwing the body...across or below the knees of an opponent."
"I thought he got rid of the puck and I just kind of tried to get a piece of him," Kadri said, pleased that Ovechkin managed to return for the second. "It's not like I stuck my knee out or got my arms high or anything like that. It happened pretty quick. From what I saw I thought it was OK."
Washington took advantage, scoring their fifth power-play goal on the series on T.J. Oshie's third of the post-season.
The Leafs pulled back even six minutes into the second on yet another goal from Matthews, who was named a finalist for the Calder trophy earlier in the week. The 19-year-old took advantage of some stellar puck protection around the net by fellow rookie running mate, William Nylander, and then buried the rebound from his shot attempt.
It was a third straight game with a goal for Matthews, who went pointless in the first two games of the series. The Caps have increasingly struggled to slow him and his linemates down and will have less of an advantage with respect to matchups as the series shifts back to Toronto on Sunday night.
If the Leafs are to win that game and stretch the series to seven games as Babcock seems confident they will, a better functioning power play will likely be required. The club had successive opportunities after the Matthews goal, but failed to score or even generate a shot.
Often, it was a struggle just to get the puck in the offensive zone and Toronto finished the night empty on four man-advantage opportunities.
Babcock identified those entries into the offensive end as being in need of some clean-up while also pointing to faceoffs -- though the Leafs won five-of-seven draws with the man advantage.
"I didn't mind our power play during the playoffs thus far," Babcock said. "I didn't think tonight was any good at all."
Generally though, the Leafs played the kind of responsible, even-handed game that's required with the stakes so high. They didn't give up many quality looks and got saves from Andersen when they did -- that is until Williams' OT winner which saw the long-time playoff hero get lost in transition.
It speaks to the collective playoff inexperience permeating much of Toronto's roster that Kadri had to dig out a memory from his days as a London Knight as a comparable to a series with so much "bonus hockey". But what's become clear in 10 days worth of action between the two teams is how little that experience deficit has mattered.
The Leafs have pushed their Stanley Cup-thinking foes at every step with talent. Might that change when the pressure rises even a tick higher with elimination in the cards? Will all those games of playoff experience for Williams, Ovechkin, and Oshie matter when the margin for error shrinks even more?
Babcock thinks not and wants his team thinking that way too.
"We believe we still have a chance to win," he said. "And that's what we're going to do."