On paper, it looked as if the Washington Capitals could cruise past the Toronto Maple Leafs as the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets beat each other up on the other side of the bracket.
On the ice, the series could not have been more different.
Hardly looking as good as they did in the regular season, the Capitals needed six one-goal games — five of which went to overtime — to eliminate the up-and-coming Maple Leafs.
“Give them credit, they battled hard,” Alex Ovechkin said after a series that was decided by two total goals and two shots separated the teams. “They’re young, but they’re strong. They have a very good future.”
The Capitals’ future is a rematch against the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins, who dispatched the Blue Jackets in five and have been waiting since Thursday night.
After Washington finished off Toronto in overtime Sunday night on Marcus Johansson’s second goal of Game 6, it’s all set. The Capitals and Penguins will meet in the second round for the second consecutive year with the winner again considered the favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference.
It’s a showdown of the top two teams in the NHL this season after the Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy with 118 points and the Penguins had 111.
“We know how good they are,” Washington coach Barry Trotz said. “They knocked us out last year, so we get a chance to go back at them again.”
So it’s Ovechkin vs. Sidney Crosby for the third time in their careers, which have been linked since they entered the NHL together in 2005. Pittsburgh won the previous two meetings, the first in 2009, and went on to win the Cup each time.
Much like a year ago, the Capitals were tested in the first round — though this time it was more Toronto’s speed than Philadelphia’s physicality. The Capitals scored 18 goals to the Maple Leafs’ 16 and had one fewer shot (213-212) over the course of the series.
“They gave us everything they had, and we had to work hard for it and we had to stick with it for a long time,” said Johansson, who was one of the best Capitals players in the series but didn’t score until Game 6. “We’re ready (to face the Penguins). We’re excited. We can’t wait to get going. We’ve worked hard for it. We’ve worked all year and all summer to get back into this position, and now we’re here.”
Meanwhile, those Penguins again got through the first round in five games largely unscathed because even goaltender Matt Murray’s lower-body injury has been shuffled to the back of concerns by the play of Marc-Andre Fleury.
Again a Vezina Trophy finalist after being the top goalie in the league last season, Washington’s Braden Holtby had an uneven series against the Maple Leafs in large part because of some wacky bounces and unpredictable play. Mid-series, Holtby worked on body control and bounced back to allow just two goals in the final two games of the series.
“You always say expect the unexpected and you really have to reiterate it in those circumstances to just react,” Holtby said. “Don’t guess, just react.”
There had been no guessing needed with the Capitals’ lineup down the stretch, but an upper-body injury knocked defenseman Karl Alzner out for the final four games of the first round and brought Nate Schmidt in. Schmidt saw as much if not more ice time as trade-deadline acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk, and with skating expected to be at a premium again versus Pittsburgh, the 25-year-old is a candidate to keep playing.
“He’s always an energy guy,” center Jay Beagle said. “He’s played great all year. For him to come in and play like he’s been doing is no surprise to us.”
The play of the young Maple Leafs surprised everyone, even though maybe it shouldn’t. Rookie of the year finalist Auston Matthews scored four goals and an inexperienced, untested defense handled and thrived under the pressure.
Toronto’s speed gave the Capitals a nice test before facing the quick Penguins, who used that element to eliminate Washington in six a year ago. Pittsburgh doesn’t have injured defenseman Kris Letang, but is still a formidable puck-moving force and could have veteran winger Chris Kunitz back.
“We’re going to concentrate and relax,” Ovechkin said. “At the same time, we know Pittsburgh is coming to town and it’s going to be crazy.”