Washington Capitals vs. Toronto Maple Leafs: Three Players to Watch


Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Capitals will do battle with the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight in Verizon Center at 7:00PM EST. Who will be the most instrumental players for their teams’ success?

The Verizon Center and the Washington Capitals will play host to the incoming Toronto Maple Leafs (2-8-3) as they begin an arduous three-game road swing after finishing a brief homestand for the blue shirts from Canada. With a 2-1 OT loss to the Detroit Red Wings likely still stinging, the Leafs face a Capitals team that looked red hot against the Boston Bruins. Toronto better be ready to skate tonight. Things could get ugly fast for the Leafs otherwise. 

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The Capitals (9-3-0) will be looking to start another string of wins together on the young season against the struggling Leafs who only have two wins so far on the season. Barry Trotz will be looking to find more chemistry between his lines. His most recent tinkering places all three Swedish players on the second line. Marcus Johansson, Nicklas Backstrom and new arrival to the second forward group Andre Burakovsky will be playing together tonight per Katie Brown.

"Caps forward lines at morning skate: 8-92-77 90-19-65"

For the Leafs, I’ve got to imagine that new coach Mike Babcock has something in store against one of the league’s highest-scoring offenses. Having watched last night’s overtime contest between the Wings and Leafs, I’m at a loss to imagine how they plan to pull a rabbit out of a hat in this one. They’ll need offense which has been absent so far and a shadow-like defense on the Capitals. Having watched the Leafs so far this season, both seem unlikely.

The color commentator on the TSN broadcast called the game against Detroit a “tight checking, grind-it-out affair”. I’d disagree. I’d say it was another sloppy showing from a constipated Maple Leaf team that look like the rebuilding could take multiple seasons. It was bad hockey. They’ve got there work cut out. At multiple points in the game, groans went up in the Air Canada Centre when passes to the blue line whizzed past the stick of a disjointed defenseman. It was painful to watch. I’m sorry, Toronto.

Beating the Maple Leafs shouldn’t prove to be one of the larger challenges the Capitals have faced so far on the young season, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t certain players we should all probably hone in on. I’ve got a few predictions for difference makers, for both teams, that could spell the fate of the contest tonight. Here’s who I’m putting the microscope on tonight in Verizon Center.

Nazem Kadri (Toronto) – Center – 13 Games Played, 1 Goal, 5 Assists

Nazem Kadri is a sleeping tiger – he is best left in peace. It feels like he could wake up at any moment. The problem then, are the fifteen ball he looks to be simultaneously juggling under new coach Babcock. It turns Kadri slow, which robs the stripes from the slumbering beast. Kadri will crash the net tonight and look for loose change. 

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He’s been in the right spot on offense, he just seems doesn’t feel threatening yet. Watch for him to get involved early in the Washington crease.

Kadri and forward James van Riemsdyk are obviously attempting to shirk their early season impudence by running designed plays into the offensive zone, but so far, they haven’t worked. Look for the trio of forwards to break into the zone in a triangular formation with the arrow point playing the role of screener on their opposite defensemen. They tried it last night against Detroit and snuck in a pretty sneaky shot in the first period. I’m guessing we’ll see the same play tonight early

James Reimer (Toronto) – Goaltender – 7 Games Played, .909 Save Percentage, 2.69 Goals Against Average

The reason I mention James Reimer here is simple. Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby won’t need to be spectacular tonight to beat the Maple Leafs. Reimer though, will need to elevate his game by leaps and echelons if he’s to succeed. If the Leafs win, it will be due to Reimer’s brilliance. Either he’s a superb goaltender having a run of extended poor luck – or he’s not superb and he’s just a subpar goalie on a subpar team led by subpar defensemen. I’m guessing the latter, but I’ve been wrong before.

Reimer has given up some enticing rebounds lately and looks leaky around the pads. I’m guessing Barry Trotz and company have also noticed this and we’ll see a lot of Capitals’ forwards jabbing with the Leaf defensemen in the crease waiting to cash in on an oft yawning net behind Reimer. It should probably be noted that Holtby has also struggled with this lately, so the inverse also seems likely. The difference is between the defensemen in front of the net and right now – it feels very lopsided in favor of Washington.

Nicklas Backstrom

Okay, so I’m kind of cheating a little here. My third player to watch is whoever gets to play in the center role in one of the NHL’s most deadly power play units with Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie. Up to this point, it’s been Kuznetsov skating C on PP1. I’ve got a feeling that could change tonight. Toronto boasts a formidable penalty kill unit that has stymied 77.8% of their opponents thus far. As predicted in my preview post – I foresee a pair of goals coming for the Caps tonight on special teams and a reverse in their recent struggles.

Speaking of special teams, the Toronto power play reminds me of a major interstellar network of satellites beaming zillions of bytes of information – only over a crummy home WiFi network. All the intelligence is being transmitted, just deemed impudent by slow processing. The results are errant passes that either miss their mark or arrive too late after the window of time has already elapsed. Babcock and his coaching staff will remedy this eventually, but I don’t think it’s happening tonight.

Next: Caps vs. Leafs: Game Preview, Live Stream, Broadcast Info

I don’t usually think games will be lopsided, but after watching both Washington and Toronto play recently – I can’t help myself. This has all the makings of a trap game for the Capitals, so my confidence never feels 100% locked in… but the Capitals should make short work of the Leafs at home tonight. Stay tuned to Stars and Sticks for continuing coverage.