The Washington Capitals have a distinct advantage defensively over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
No matter what the competition is, the victor tends to be whoever exploits their strengths and their opponent’s weaknesses most efficiently. There are exceptions, but this proves especially true in the NHL. The Washington Capitals must do this against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Their defense is the key to victory over them.
Essentially, their offenses are equal. Both teams generate a ton of scoring chances in a hurry and can score at will. Let’s look at their key numbers on offense. All stats are at even strength, are per 60 minutes and are score, zone and venue adjusted. Data courtesy of Corsica.
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Toronto has 10.11 scoring chances per 60 minutes while Washington has 8.85 per 60. If you prefer goals, the Caps have the advantage 2.87 to 2.69. The Leafs also generate more shot attempts (63.02 to 60.25). In short, expect both teams to generate scoring chances and the Caps better not sit back on Toronto or they’ll make them pay.
Washington’s strength all season long has been their blue line. It’s arguably the best in the NHL, especially with Kevin Shattenkirk. Trotz’s system demands structure and it’s built from the blue line out. Let’s take a look at the defensive numbers. Once again, these numbers are at even strength, are per 60 minutes and are adjusted.
Washington has a distinct advantage across the board. The Caps allow 1.86 goals against while the Maple Leafs allow 2.55. This is nearly a one goal per 60 minutes difference. Braden Holtby plays a very large role in this, but the Caps defense is excellent at suppressing shots and scoring chances. Toronto allows 59.94 shot attempts against while Washington allows 52.91. The Caps allow 8.07 scoring chances against while the Leafs allow 8.70.
Toronto has done a heck of a job rebuilding their forward core by drafting wisely and keeping effective players at reasonable prices. Their playing style should look familiar because the Caps used to run a very similar fun system. Why does Toronto push the puck so much and do risky things? Because they know they need to because their defense isn’t great once you get past Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner.
The Caps should have the upper hand in the first round series because of their defense. As long as they stay true to their system, Washington has what it takes to limit Toronto’s scoring chances. They have three legitimate first pairing defensemen in Dmitry Orlov, Matt Niskanen and Shattenkirk. John Carlson is a very good second pairing defenseman. Brooks Orpik has been a pleasant surprise, contributing a lot when no one thought he would. Karl Alzner is a problem, but luckily, the Caps can overcome him. Nate Schmidt might be the best seventh defenseman in the NHL.