"No lead is safe," Washington coach Barry Trotz said, probably for the benefit of anyone who had walked into the ACC at 10 p.m. Wednesday and those who had not tracked the Capitals-Maple Leafs series over the past week.
It would not have come as any news to anyone who had even casually watched Trotz’s team just beat the home side 5-4 in Game 4. The fragility of being a goal up is at this point a proven and universally accepted proposition. Ditto a two-goal advantage. And Wednesday night the Capitals came far closer to blowing a three-goal lead than they or their coach was comfortable with.
In the macro sense, being a game up is no big deal, either. The Caps were up when they won the first game of the series and the Leafs when they won the next two. As both coaches and every player in either dressing room noted in the wake of Game 4, it is now a best-of-three series.
It has been a head-scratching series so far and figures to be just about the same going forward.
It has been noted in a lot of quarters and this one after Game 3 that Alexander Ovechkin has been rolled out there sparingly by his standards when it comes to ice time. When he got the power-play goal that gave the Capitals a 2-0 lead not five minutes into Game 4, a rocket on a cross-ice pass, you thought he was going to get on a roll and carry the team the rest of the way. Of course, you thought exactly the same thing when he had done exactly the same thing at exactly the same juncture two nights earlier and it didn’t happen then, either.
Ovechkin has long been a player capable of miracle plays but somehow it’s really startling when he does something as mundane as skating off the ice after a mere 28, 30 or 35 seconds of a shift. This has never been his method nor his history, the player we’ve come to know and love or not. Some will explain that it’s strictly situational, that when you’re defending a lead of a goal or two or three he might not be the player you’d most want out there. This argument on a couple of levels is only so much bovine feces.
For one thing, Ovechkin usually travels with Nicklas Backstrom. The Swedish centre might not be used on the Capitals’ penalty kill and once upon a time finished 10th in Selke voting but he is nonetheless an estimable two-way player. If you’re going to spend a good part of the decade looking over at one side or another at Ovechkin you get used to playing without the puck. You’re giving him service, and when you’re not, a lot of time it’s coming back your way.
For another, Ovechkin is pretty capable of driving possession. The ultimate protection of a lead is owning the puck and, well, you won’t push Ovechkin off the puck. Maybe it can happen occasionally and maybe the Leafs’ Leo Komarov has a bit more success at it than others. Still, you throw Ovechkin out there and let him roll over people and run the clock.
I say all this and I will note, however, that Ovechkin is somewhat past his peak if not drifting off into sunset seasons. On a couple of occasions, we’ve seen young Leafs catch up to him from behind and such stuff would have been fanciful to hope for once upon a time. That stuff starts to happen in your 30s when you’re coming up on 1,000 furiously played career games. Still, giving him the puck is generally like waving an ammonia capsule under his beak.
When Barry Trotz says no lead is safe, it might seem like he’s not telling us anything we didn’t already know but in fact it is more revealing than you might think—the coach came out and told us what was on his mind, what drove his approach to the game. And for whatever reason, he thinks leads are entrusted to a certain type of player rather than, for want of a better description, an uncertain type of player. Trotz’s term in Washington has been judged a good fit in Washington, but only by reason of the team’s success in the regular seasons and Ovechkin’s buy-in.
I don’t think I’m the only one who still finds it odd to see him behind the Capitals’ bench. To me, he’ll always be the coach of the Nashville Predators. Everybody else was playing musical chairs in the business all those years while he was planted in a Barcalounger. And Trotz had certain players that he ran with in Nashville—it wasn’t necessarily a matter of preference, had to be as much the hand he was dealt, the talent he was given to work with. And Trotz is inclined to call in the plumbers to prevent leaks.
And yet, is Evgeny Kuznetsov anybody’s idea of a plumber? I’m flummoxed to explain how he ends up playing almost 20 minutes (nary a second on a penalty kill) and Ovechkin 16:30. I get the idea of Justin Williams as your Been-There Playoff Presence and you want to throw him out there. Still, the bench management is a puzzler. In a meaningful game you just don’t imagine that Ovechkin will get the sixth-most ice time among your forward corps.
Then again the putative first prize of the trade deadline days was defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk—remember how the Caps won the Cup when they acquired the free agent to be from St Louis—and in Game 4 he was the sixth most used defenceman, and by a goodly margin, with not even 13 minutes.
Leads don’t figure to be any safer for either team the rest of the way in this series if the goaltending is at the level we saw Wednesday night. You wouldn’t give either Washington’s Braden Holtby and Toronto’s Frederik Andersen a mark as high as B-minus and at least the latter was far more critical of his own work. (Neither Trotz nor Toronto coach Mike Babcock threw their netminders under the bus but some things need not be said and remain self-evident.)
No lead is safe in this series and with the games sitting at two apiece right now there’s no lead at all.