TORONTO – Barry Trotz keeps talking about bounces.
He did it after his Washington Capitals pulled off a 5-4 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 4. He went back to the well a couple more times again the next morning while explaining how a one-sided effort became a one-goal game.
“It’s a pinball machine out there a little bit,” he told reporters in Arlington, Va., on Thursday.
The third-period goal by Auston Matthews struck a particularly sour note for Trotz and the Capitals.
“We got (the puck) out of the zone and we actually probably could have gone on a 2-on-1 and it hits the linesman and goes right to their guy and they get a quick 2-on-1, they throw it at the net and it bounces off a few people and on to their stick.”
Viewed in a vacuum, these seem like strange comments for a coach to make. Especially since Washington is fresh off its best game of a series that is now tied 2-2 and preparing for a Game 5 on home ice Friday night.
However, what they speak to more than anything is just how razor-thin this best-of-seven has been so far.
The Leafs and Caps have played more than four and a half games, including overtimes, and are tied 14-14 on aggregate. The shots are 150-147 in Toronto’s favour. Washington has controlled 51.33 per cent of shot attempts at even strength.
The reason Trotz is so fixated on the bad bounces is because one could quite literally be what breaks the tie at the fast-approaching finish line.
“It’s going to be close,” said Leafs winger Brian Boyle. “It’s pretty thin to begin with in this league with the parity and when you get to the playoffs it gets thinner and thinner. You need to work for your bounces, you need to work for your breaks, you need to work for the luck that you’re going to get because that’s for sure there, too.”
It can’t be a comfortable thought for anyone heavily invested in the outcome of this first-round series.
You go through training camp and the exhibition schedule, you grind through another 86 games over six gruelling months, and now you find yourself mere days away from the potential end of the season. And you’re playing a team that is basically mirroring your performance on every measurable level.
“You just kind of have to breathe through the whole thing,” said Boyle. “Understand where you’re at, understand what’s going on in the series, understand what’s been working and what hasn’t.”
“It’s about who can kind of force their play down the other team’s throat,” said Leafs defenceman Connor Carrick. “Both teams have a good offensive five-on-five concept, both teams are trying to make it difficult to get through the neutral zone, both teams are trying to be strong at their own net and in (the defensive) zone.
“What specifically it looks like is a little different for each team, but it’s ‘go time’ in terms of who is going to win the most points on that checklist.”
The Capitals have enjoyed a slight edge on specialty teams – with stronger percentages on the penalty kill (76.9-66.7) and power play (33.3-23.1) – while Toronto is leading 11-10 in goals at even strength. That can be attributed to the fact they’ve generated more than 57 per cent of the high-danger scoring chances in the series.
The Leafs didn’t much like their first 40 minutes on Wednesday, and devoted a Thursday meeting to discussing why Washington was able to sustain so much time in their zone. They took some positives from a third-period pushback where they hemmed in the Caps and lead 21-8 in even-strength shot attempts.
“We weren’t very good last night and still, in the end, it was a one-goal game, wasn’t it?” said Babcock.
In the big picture, there really hasn’t been much to choose between.
Each team has enjoyed stretches of dominance over the other and scored a lot of goals. Now down to brass tacks, perhaps it is one of the goalies – Frederik Andersen or Braden Holtby – who will tip the scales in the best-of-three that remains.
It could also come down to a power play, a penalty kill, a turnover or an individual stroke of brilliance from one of the several offensive stars in the series. Maybe it’ll even be a crazy bounce that determines who moves on.
That’s a slightly uncomfortable reality for the heavily favoured Caps and something the Leafs are looking to embrace.
“Well I think if you would have told our guys at the start of the series it’s 2-2 and we’re going into the best-of-three they’d all do a cartwheel, if they knew how,” said Babcock. “I couldn’t do it, I’d hurt my back. We’re in a great situation. …
“This is our opportunity. We earned this opportunity. Let’s make good on this opportunity. I’m not trying to tell you, ‘Hey, they’re young. We shouldn’t win.’ I never said that.”