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Leafs' challenge vs. Caps goes way beyond Alex Ovechkin

Leafs' challenge goes way beyond Ovechkin

TORONTO — William Nylander recalls being a kid, hanging around his father's NHL team, the Washington Capitals. But only faint memories remain.

There were the times Nicklas Backstrom — "one of the best passers in the league" â€” came by for dinner. 

And there was The Shot, a weapon that has helped Alex Ovechkin score 176 more regular-season goals than anyone since his noisy entrance into the NHL in 2005.

"His shot is amazing," says Nylander, the Maple Leafs rookie winger who will face his father Michael's old squad in a first-round playoff series, which kicks off Thursday in Washington.

While Ovechkin remains lethal, the Leafs' challenge in overcoming the President Trophy-winning Capitals runs way deeper. There's a reason they finished with 55 wins — five more than anyone else — and a league-best plus-84 goal differential and it's their astounding depth of talent.

Washington had a pair of 30-goal-scorers in Ovechkin and feisty American winger T.J. Oshie, but also nine other players who managed at least 12, including a group of fourth liners that combined for 29 even-strength markers. Don't forget about a well-rounded defence that includes Kevin Shattenkirk, the trade deadline acquisition who finished fourth among all NHL defencemen with 56 points.

Ovechkin wasn't the Caps' best or even second-best player. Backstrom, an ace at finding "little spaces" to thread passes, according to Nylander, finished second to Connor McDavid with 63 assists and fourth with 86 points. Braden Holtby, meanwhile, compiled another year of Vezina Trophy consideration.

"I think the big thing Washington has going for them is they've got depth right through," Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said. 

The Caps, who finished with the NHL's third-best offence, aren't just a scoring machine with good size and skill. They boast a top-three power play and top-10 penalty kill, held the lead almost 300 minutes more than any team (the Leafs were third) and are elite when it comes to hogging the puck.

Ovechkin may have finished with his slimmest totals in years, including a career-low 16 even-strength goals, but he's still more than capable of burning the Leafs, especially on the power play — his 17 goals were tied for the league lead.

He doesn't need much space to get the one-time blast off, even more so now with Shattenkirk lingering as another threat for opponents to worry about.

Frederik Andersen, who probably has to outplay Holtby for the Leafs to win the series, said it wasn't necessarily about being extra alert when Ovechkin hovered in wait, but understanding his tendencies and being prepared for them.  

"He's a good player, you just need to stay above him and try to stay close to him," said Finnish winger Leo Komarov. "But he's obviously going to get his chances and you just need to (keep) the puck away from him."

Toronto's primary defensive tandem for handling Ovechkin and the Caps top line, which also includes Backstrom and Oshie, is now in real question with Nikita Zaitsev ruled out for Game 1 with an upper body injury (and suspected concussion). Babcock connected Jake Gardiner with Roman Polak at practice Wednesday and Morgan Rielly with veteran Matt Hunwick, but wasn’t sure if he’d keep the pairings intact.

Gardiner replaced Rielly on the team's top pair in early March.

Babcock won't get his choice of forward matchups until the series shifts back to Toronto next week, the trio of Komarov, Nazem Kadri and one of Nylander or Connor Brown likely to combat Ovechkin, a task they handled relatively well in the regular season.

The Leafs held Ovechkin to one goal and three points in three games, but the Caps still won twice behind that vaunted depth — 12 different players scoring at least once. 

Toronto will be hard-pressed to stop everyone, including Evgeny Kuznetsov (59 points), Marcus Johansson (58), and long-time playoff hero Justin Williams (24 goals), not to mention Daniel Winnik, Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky.

The challenge looms even larger with Zaitsev, the team’s top minute-eater, out and uncertain for Game 2.

Defensive depth is a weakness for the Leafs and they've got at least one weary defensive line — Tyler Bozak, Mitch Marner and James van Riemsdyk — that can be exposed, especially on the road.

That line can certainly score and so can the Leafs, but can they stop wave upon wave of Washington's attack?

"They're obviously the best team in the league for a reason," Auston Matthews, the Leafs record-setting rookie and leading scorer, said. 

But, he added, "I don't think they can take us lightly. I think we've got a lot of speed and a lot of skill. I think we've surprised a lot of teams this year."

Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press