WASHINGTON -- In a fun, fast and freewheeling series that has signaled the rise of the Toronto Maple Leafs and stirred up unpleasant memories of previous Washington Capitals playoff failures, both teams will skate into Game 5 on Friday at Verizon Center with the goal of grabbing the elusive momentum.
The best-of-seven series is tied at two games apiece.
By dint of their 5-4 victory Wednesday, the Capitals earned a nominal advantage in that two of the final three games will be in Washington, where they have been dominant this season. But the Maple Leafs feel they are a much different squad than the one that opened the series a week ago.
"We're in a much better situation than we were when we went to Washington the first time," Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said after practice Thursday. "I think the competition level in each game in every series gets higher and higher. There's a lot more at stake and a lot less recovery space, if that makes any sense. Suddenly you're in a two-out-of-three, and you think it's an important series, you want to win Game 1. Game 1 is the next game you play, so it's good.
"We got a nice meal today, a nice stretch. Let's get ready to play."
The problem for the Leafs was that they weren't ready to play at the start of both Games 3 and 4. They fell into first-period holes that made things difficult against the experienced Capitals, a trend that must change for the Leafs to have a chance in what figures to be an electric atmosphere.
"Without a doubt, starts are important, especially on the road," Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri said. "We've got to try to get off to a good start, and I think the stats don't lie, the majority of teams that score that first goal have a better chance of winning the game. That's just stats and facts."
Washington has had its hands full with the upstart Leafs, in part because the Capitals feel Toronto has gotten most of the favorable bounces in the series, leaving them feeling helpless at times.
"We're becoming really mentally tough in this series," Washington coach Barry Trotz said Thursday. "They've got some strange goals, and that sometimes can play on your mind a little bit."
Just ask Braden Holtby. The Capitals' goaltender was one of the best in the NHL this season, but he has given up 14 goals and carries just a .907 save percentage into Game 5 thanks to Toronto's willingness to fire pucks at any time, from any angle.
"It's one of those types of stretches where every bounce seems to be going the wrong way," Holtby said after his Game 4 win. "You just have to focus on the percentages -- where they usually go. There are some I've played that you really can't do anything about and some I'd like to change a bit. You just have to battle and look at video more than usual."
Defenseman Karl Alzner remains a question mark for the Capitals after missing the last two games with an upper-body injury, although he did skate Thursday.
While the Leafs get all the headlines for their young players, Washington has received key contributions from defenseman Nate Schmidt, in lieu of Alzner, and from forward Tom Wilson, who tallied two goals in Game 4 after Trotz played a hunch and put him on the third line.
"We knew it wasn't going to be an easy series no matter what the media or fans said," Wilson said. "They've been playing good hockey all year."
And Toronto is confident it can steal another win Friday.
"We've split a couple of games already and found a way to win on the road," Kadri said. "We know we can do it again."