WASHINGTON — Whether he was trying to convince himself or his players, Leafs coach Mike Babcock sure seemed confident his team would win Game 6 on Sunday night in Toronto and force an all-or-nothing Game 7 in Washington.
"We believe we still have a chance to win," he said. "And that's what we're going to do."
Here are a few reasons why he might just be right:
MATTHEWS N' CO.
Auston Matthews had one shot in a quiet series opener, but he's been a wrecking ball since. The 19-year-old forward scored for the third straight night in Game 5 and has piled up 29 shot attempts and four points in the last four games.
His linemates include fellow rookies William Nylander and Zach Hyman. They have been the Leafs' most dangerous line so far.
Capitals coach Barry Trotz has mostly trusted Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov to defend the trio and while that's been relatively effective in terms of puck possession, Washington won't have the final say on matchups in Toronto and Babcock can certainly take advantage in Game 6.
Generally speaking, the Capitals have struggled to contain not only the speed and puck-hogging ability of Matthews, but also Nylander, who has four points, 18 shots and 58 per cent possession. Hyman's persistent physicality has caused disruption too.
KADRI VS. OVECHKIN
Trotz has tried to keep Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie away from Nazem Kadri's line and for good reason. While the Caps had an edge when the two units went head-to-head in Game 5, for the most part the Leafs have had the upper hand in this series.
More and more it looks like Kadri and linemates Leo Komarov and Connor Brown are getting under the skin of Washington's top line.
That was especially clear late in the first period Friday night when Kadri delivered a questionable hit to Ovechkin's left knee. The end result (beyond a power-play goal for Washington) was the Capitals relentlessly pursuing the 26-year-old forward. Eventually, Niskanen took a penalty for slashing.
The Leafs' odds improve if they continue to get the matchup here.
"He was fantastic for us," Trotz said of Braden Holtby after a 24-save performance in Game 5.
But generally this series, the Leafs have been able to put pucks past the reigning Vezina trophy winner — especially at even strength. In fact, Holtby gave up four goals in three consecutive games for the first time all season during this series and Toronto seems to have made a point of bumping him as frequently as possible — much to the Capitals' frustration.
Holtby has the slight edge in overall save percentage this series, but Frederik Andersen is tops between the two at even strength. Andersen will likely need to outclass Holtby in Game 6 if the Leafs are to force Game 7.
Toronto's power play was abysmal in Game 5 — 0-4 with four shots — but the unit did score in each of the previous three games and ranked second overall in the NHL during the regular season.
It's evident the Capitals made adjustments Friday night, slowing Toronto's entries into the offensive zone, and even "got in our head a little bit", according to Babcock. Fixing what ailed them in Game 6 might go a long way toward success given Washington's propensity for taking penalties.
The Capitals finished third in the regular season with 312 minors and Tom Wilson took four alone in Game 5 and was benched for it.
THE MISSING LINE
Toronto's most potent even-strength line in the regular season has been its least effective against the Capitals.
Tyler Bozak, Mitch Marner and James van Riemsdyk have yet to generate consistent scoring opportunities through five games. Bozak and Marner were both held without a shot on Friday.
Marner does have four points in the series — he picked up a pair of assists during the Leafs' ill-fated comeback in Game 4 — but he has not created much in limited space against a heavy opponent.
After Game 5, Babcock said the trio needed "to take a step here for us" and he can help that effort by giving the line plenty of starts in the offensive zone against the Capitals' lesser players. If they can take advantage, the Leafs chances of going the distance tick a little higher.
Washington's overwhelming advantage in playoff experience hasn't mattered yet in a series that's been close every step of the way.
All five games have been decided by a goal with four of the five reaching overtime. The two teams are just about even in goals (16-15 for Washington), exactly even in shots and pretty close to even in even-strength shot attempts.
"That's how the series is going to be and we've got to find a way to pull off one or two wins here," Kadri said.
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press