The Toronto Maple Leafs are confident otherwise.
Kadri, in particular, thinks that by throwing their weight around in Game 3’s comeback overtime victory, his antagonist line has crept inside the heads of the Caps’ all-world line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie.
He wants them looking over their shoulder with every puck in deep.
“You can just tell by the body language on the ice. You start to get frustrated when not much is going your way,” Kadri said Wednesday.
The playoff stubble on his face is just a week old; the chip on his shoulder has been there for a minute.
“Anytime you can get into their face, you do so,” Kadri said. “That’s what the playoffs are all about. You’ve got to increase your physical play. They’re a big strong team. They’re taking some liberties with our defencemen.”
That Orpik turned into a target in Game 3, the Caps’ bruising defenceman says, was expected. Kadri nailed the 221-pounder twice in a momentum-shifting span of seconds, rallying the Toronto crowd and cueing an emotional comeback for the home side.
“Good for him. It was probably a good time for him to do that,” Orpik said, acknowledging that heavy shift boosted a “flat” Leafs team on Monday.
“When a guy unfortunately gets taken out by a gruesome injury, especially a guy who’s as popular as [Polak] is among his teammates, you gotta know guys are gonna want to get back at you,” Orpik reasoned.
“If you’re a physical guy, you gotta expect that back. At this time of year, you have to swallow that, not retaliate and not take penalties with these two power plays.”
The Leafs’ power play finished second overall in the regular season; the Capitals’ ranked fourth. In this young series, the Caps already have three goals with the extra skater; the Leafs have two.
With a cast of elite finishers on both sides and the referees’ let-’em-play tolerance varying from game to game, riding the line between aggressive and disciplined matters.
Two hundred and seventy-seven hits have already landed through three games. Kadri and Komarov have averaged about five a game apiece.
“We prepare for the matchup. It’s about containing their talent and making sure they gotta work for every inch,” Kadri said.
“[Backstrom] can make plays in tight and stickhandle with the best of them. We understand he’s a pass-first guy. Those other two, it works to their benefit. Ovie’s a shooter, and Oshie does a lot of the hard work getting pucks back. They have great chemistry, but so far we’ve done a great job.”
Like a Russian nesting doll, there’s a battle tucked within a battle here. The Ovechkin-Komarov story reaches back to when they were teammates with Moscow Dynamo during the 2012 lockout and features many an international run-in.
“He’s a kind of a rat out there,” Ovechkin said. “He’s trying to get under your skin. For me, it doesn’t matter what he’s trying to do out there, like to talk to me or do something. I’m trying to concentrate on the different things right now than talk about Leo.”
When Ovechkin hammered Komarov from the blind side in 2014, he gave his friend/foe a concussion but made a point to hug him afterward.
Today, Komarov dismisses it as an unfortunate result from a game situation.
“A lot of bad things happen on the ice. I’m always going to remember it, but there’s nothing he can do. It could happen to anyone,” Komarov said.
“We’ve got a long history together. No one really likes to play against him because he’s a great player and he’s tough. But someone has to do it. I’d rather be on the ice than sit at home and watch it on TV. I can’t say I’m not enjoying it. It’s nice.”
It’s also the matchup coach Mike Babcock wants (and gets) on home ice.
“Leo’s doing a great job. He’s an agitator. That’s what he does best,” Kadri said. “He gets under everyone’s skin. I couldn’t imagine playing against someone like that. It would drive me crazy.”
Komarov, straightfaced: “I’m not making friends out there.”
Kadri and Komarov are at their best when viscerally involved—though the same could be said for Ovechkin and Oshie. The Leafs, however, are more likely to yap about it.
“They let their actions do the talking. They’re not big on the verbal altercations,” Kadri says. Then a sly smile: “That’s not saying we aren’t.”
Capitals defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk suggests ignoring Toronto’s two-pronged pest instead of squishing them out.
“The way I look at it, you don’t want to get caught in that battle. That’s exactly what they’re looking for. They want you to take that extra shot and get out of position so that they can capitalize on it,” Shattenkirk said. “They know what their role is, and they’ve been doing it pretty well.
“But if we look them back in the eye, smile and just skate away, that will frustrate them even more.”