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Anthony Mantha’s engaging, physical play helps lift the Caps in the playoffs

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Capitals forward Anthony Mantha couldn’t help but laugh after his 10-hit performance in Game 1 of Washington’s first-round series against the Florida Panthers. It was not only the most hits in his short Capitals career, it was the most hits he’s had in a game — ever.

At the time, even Mantha didn’t sound confident he could keep up his physical play through a long series with Florida.

“I don’t know if I can get 10 again, obviously,” Mantha said with a laugh after Game 1. “But getting at least a couple out there just to get engaged in the game, trying to get them on their heels maybe. That one play that is going to create a turnover, [that] is going to be beneficial for us. Who knows, maybe I’ll get a little more, get a little less.”

With three games down, the Capitals lead the series, 2-1. And through it Mantha has flourished, continuing to sustain his engaging, physical play from Game 1.

Mantha had two assists in Washington’s 6-1 Game 3 win, marking his first career multi-point game in the playoffs. He has not only been noticeable on both ends of the ice this series, but has also taken a heighten role as the Capitals have played without an injured Tom Wilson for the last two games. Wilson is still listed as day-to-day.

“Obviously, it’s hard to find someone that plays the same way as Tom,” Mantha said Wednesday. “He’s a great player for our team and he’s intense. He hits a lot. So I think it’s just the same mind-set for us and we play the same game. Special teams need to be dominant and hopefully we go from there.”

The Capitals hope Mantha’s strong play in Games 1 and 3 continues Monday night, when Washington meets Florida for Game 4 at Capital One Arena. The Panthers, the heavy favorites headed into this series, are now on their heels.

Mantha’s play has steadily improved since he missed 45 games after November shoulder surgery. His rehab was a long and slow process, but after a couple weeks back in the lineup in early March, he proved his worth. In Mantha’s first five games after his rehab process, the Capitals went on a 4-0-1 run. His best offensive game of the season was in mid-April, when he scored twice and had two assists against Montreal.

“I thought that there were strides from last game from Anthony,” Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette said Saturday afternoon. “We all got to turn the page … and we’ve got to get ready. We’ve got to know what’s coming.”

Mantha, who had four shots on goal and three hits in Game 3, was involved in three Washington goals Saturday. The first was Marcus Johansson’s go-ahead goal midway through the second period. Mantha started the play with his heavy forecheck. Then his backhanded shot banked off Panthers defenseman Ben Chiarot before Johansson collected the rebound and buried it in front.

Mantha also had a role in Trevor van Riemsdyk’s goal less than 10 minutes later. He hustled to create a turnover on the backcheck before finding Nicklas Backstrom with a clear shot. The shot was stopped by Florida goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, but Johansson collected the rebound and dished it to van Riemsdyk, who was wide open from the left circle for the clean snipe.

Mantha, who had 15:26 of ice time, capped off his impressive showing with his on-point entry on a power-play chance midway through the third period. Mantha was able to dig the puck away from the boards and dished to Conor Sheary, who found Alex Ovechkin wide open at his signature spot on the power play, beating Bobrovsky for Washington’s fourth goal of the game.

Mantha, who had started to find his stride late in the season after being placed on a line with center Lars Eller, looked equally as comfortable Saturday on a newly-configured line with Backstrom and Johansson.

When that line was on the ice, the Capitals scored two goals and didn’t allow a single Panthers goal. Backstrom finished with two assists while Johansson had a goal and an assist. If Wilson cannot return for Game 4, and Laviolette decides to stick with his winning lineup, there’s a chance that line will stay intact as the series continues.

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