The Toronto Maple Leafs are halfway to an unlikely first round win in the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs after an even more unlikely game three win over the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals. The top seeds appeared to be restoring order in the series when they raced out to an early lead, but the hometown boys, backed up by 19 000 screaming fans at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, clawed their way back to win 4-3 in overtime for the second game in a row.
Washington was all over the Leafs in the first half of the game, scoring on their first two shots and eventually taking a 3-1 lead in the second period. But a run of massive penalty kills flipped the momentum and the Leafs would roar back, tying the game late in the second, only for yet another game to need overtime (games one and two both needed OT). After winning in double overtime in game two, the Leafs only needed a minute and a half for Tyler Bozak to play the hero, taking a 2-1 series lead for the Leafs with a power play goal.
Capitals come out flying
The chippiness began right off the opening faceoff, as Alex Ovechkin and Nikita Zaitsev, who was making his playoff debut after missing the first two games of the series with a concussion, exchanged a few crosschecks almost as soon as the puck was dropped. Just over a minute in, Justin Williams hooked Morgan Rielly to the ice, but both men were sent to the box as Rielly got two for diving. On the four-on-four, Nate Schmidt, who was in the Capitals line-up for the injured Karl Alzner, pinched on the rush and hit Nicklas Backstrom streaking up the middle who put the puck past Frederik Andersen on the Capitals first shot of the game for a 1-0 lead.
After a good few minutes where the Leafs controlled the play but couldn’t beat Braden Holtby, Washington took advantage of a failure to clear by the home team and Backstrom fed Ovechkin who ripped the one-timer past Andersen to double the lead on the Capitals second shot of the game less than five minutes in.
The Capitals kept the pressure on after doubling the lead, but a physical shift from Nazem Kadri saw number 43 leveling Capitals all over the ice which turned the momentum in favour of the home team. The big shift seemed to invigorate the Leafs, as Kadri was subbed off by Auston Matthews who picked up the puck in his own zone and, cheered on by 19 000 towel-waving Torontonians, went straight up the middle, ripped a shot which Holtby saved, only for the Leafs’ rookie sensation to beat the Caps defence to the rebound which he buried to cut the deficit in half. The Leafs second line had a pair of chances to equalise minutes later, but couldn’t bury on a series of two-one-ones and Washington would carry the 2-1 lead into the intermission.
Penalty kill gives Leafs momentum
The Capitals appeared to be in control when, just over five minutes in, they weathered some good pressure from the Leafs and turned defence into offence in a blink of an eye, as Marcus Johansson fired a long shot on net which Andersen kicked out wide, only for Evgeny Kuznetsov to win the race and bury the tightly-angled shot to restore Washington’s two-goal lead.
Everything seemed to be going the President’s Trophy winners’ way when, around the midway point of the period, Matt Hunwick took a hooking penalty and Matt Martin took an extra double-minor in the scuffle that ensued, giving Washington a full two minutes on a five-on-three power play. But with two of their best penalty killers in the box, the Leafs’ defence stood tall and killed the full too minutes and nearly scored when Mitch Marner, who was serving the penalty for Martin, charged out of the box and could have had a breakaway, but Holtby gambled, raced Marner to the puck and beat him to the blueline, clearing the puck. The Leafs threw everything at the Caps over the next minute, only to take a too-many-men penalty. But once again, the home team killed the penalty.
After spending nearly five minutes on the penalty kill, a new Leaf team came out in the dying minutes of the second period. Once again, it was hard-checking shifts from the third and fourth lines that got the Buds going, as several minutes of hard-hitting pressure from the Leafs resulted in Kadri’s point shot deflecting off Brooks Orpik’s backside and past Holtby to close to 2-2. With under a minute to go, Toronto mounted one last attack with Zack Hyman dumping the puck in and beating two Capitals to the puck behind the net. Hyman managed to shovel the puck out to Matthews who hit William Nylander all alone in front. Holtby robbed the young Swede on his first shot, but Nylander kept his nerve, controlled the rebound, made a small move, and popped it into the open net to level the game at 3-3 just before the period expired.
Leafs buzz but can’t bury
With all the momentum in their corner, the Matthews line came out flying for Toronto in the third and kept the Capitals pinned for a full minute on the opening shift of the period. The Leafs were piling on the pressure and finally drew a mistake from Washington, as Kevin Shattenkirk fired the puck over the glass to give the Leafs their first power play of the game. While Toronto had a few chances, the Caps managed a few key clearances to kill the penalty.
The Leafs were buzzing, in total control of the play and their resilience was rewarded with another power play. This time, the Leafs had several close calls to take the lead, but Holtby somehow managed to keep the game tied. Despite not scoring, Toronto was so in control that it wasn’t until there was 6:30 remaining in regulation that Washington got a shot on goal in the period, and it was a soft Ovechkin wrister from the blue line which Andersen handled with ease.
Washington started to come alive in the final five minutes, with Kuznetsov having the best chance to end the game, having Andersen down and out only to hit the post. A pair of off-setting penalties were called with two and a half minutes to play, but nothing came of it. With fifteen seconds to play, Lars Eller took a high sticking, sending the Leafs to power play. The Caps would win the draw and clear the puck, sending game three to overtime.
Bozak comes up big in OT
The Leafs started overtime on the power play and it would not take long for the league’s second-best power play in the regular season (and best of the playoff teams) to get the job done. As the seconds ticked down on Ellers’ penalty, Marner dumped the puck in and while he lost the initial battle behind the net, he stole the puck back to set up the Leafs cycle. The puck came to Kadri, who spotted Tyler Bozak in front, hitting the Leafs face-off king who deflected home the game winner to give the Leafs a shocking 4-3 comeback victory and a 2-1 series lead.
After allowing a pair of power play goals in game two, the Leafs managed to kill all three penalties they took (excluding off-setting penalties) in game three, all of them coming in that five-minute span midway through the second period. The hosts also outshot the Capitals 28-26. Washington only had three shots on goal in the third period and overtime combined, largely due to the Leafs strong puck possession, great backchecking from the forwards, and a ton of blocked shots.
The Leafs will look to take a stranglehold on home ice on Wednesday night as they take a 2-1 series lead into game four.