Why wait for Game 7?
Justin Williams gave the Washington Capitals a 3-2 series lead in their thrilling first-round matchup with the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 5 on Friday, threading a one-touch shot through the legs of Frederik Andersen 64 seconds into overtime to seal a critical 2-1 triumph.
The Capitals executed a perfect puck retrieval deep in the offensive zone to set up Williams’ winner, with Marcus Johansson digging it out for Evgeny Kuznetsov to spot the veteran, who took a direct line from the bench to the slot to arrive at the precise moment once again in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It was the most experienced Capitals forward that administered the dagger, which conveniently lends itself to the notion that despite the spirit of the young Maple Leafs, Washington’s know-how would prove to be the difference. But as it’s been all along, the result was just another coin-flip scenario in a razor-close series that hasn’t required correcting.
All five games have been decided by one goal, and now four have required overtime.
Further, Williams’ goal, which gives Washington a 16-15 advantage overall, was scored with the Capitals’ 175th shot through five games, matching the total that Toronto has directed on target in the series.
One thing that did separate Game 5 from the split through four games was the play of both goalies.
Andersen put forth another strong effort for the Maple Leafs, allowing two goals on 28 shots. But he was outplayed by Braden Holtby, whose relative mediocrity throughout the series has helped the Maple Leafs overcome occasional lapses.
Holtby finished with only 24 saves, and while he wasn’t overworked, it was the closest a goaltender has come to stealing a game in the series.
T.J. Oshie and Auston Matthews scored their third goals of the series to tee up overtime, but the overriding subplot throughout regulation was the ongoing conflict between Alex Ovechkin and Nazem Kadri, who remains at the centre of it all.
Late in the first period, Kadri crouched down and threw his hip into Ovechkin, who struggled to get to his feet after his knee clearly hyperextended as a result of the impact.
Kadri on Ovechkin: "I got a lot of respect for that guy but … I'm cheating my teammates if I don't try & get a piece of him"
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) April 22, 2017
The Capitals took the lead with Kadri serving a two-minute minor penalty for his transgression, and Ovechkin returned – somehow no worse for wear – at the start of the second period.
Kadri and Ovechkin remained involved, but aside from a subtle poke with the end of his blade under Kadri’s ribcage, Ovechkin wouldn’t look for the opportunity to get an eye for an eye. Or in this case a knee for a knee. Instead, it was Capitals defenceman Matt Niskanen who targeted the joint, rapping his stick around the back of Kadri’s knee late in the second period.
At first it looked like an egregious dive after a tap from Ovechkin, who was also engaged with Kadri at the time, but a closer look revealed Niskanen’s intent.
“(It’s) pretty bruised up,” Kadri told TSN’s Mark Masters. “(The) back of my leg isn’t doing too great. It’s a sensitive area … no padding.”
The thrilling first-round series will now shift back to Toronto, where, in a spring of firsts, the rookie-laden Leafs will face elimination for the first time.
It’s the sort of scenario that would historically favour the more experienced team. But these Maple Leafs have proven to many in this series that intangibles matter little, and that they are skilled enough to compete with the best teams in the league.
You can include coach in that group.
“It’s a good, competitive series,” said Mike Babcock. “We believe we still have a chance to win.
“That’s what we’re going to do.”