The nucleus of young players that propelled the Leafs into the Stanley Cup playoffs has learned a plethora of lessons under Mike Babcock’s tutelage.
Including the adage that life isn’t always fair.
Indeed Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, William Nylander et al played well enough to deserve a better fate than a 3-2 overtime loss to Washington at Verizon Center on Thursday night. But the reality is that a moral victory, plus two dollars, gets you a ride on a WMATA bus.
The youthful Leafs, seven of whom were making their NHL playoff debuts, were not star struck by the Presidents’ Trophy winners. Instead Toronto dictated the play right from the opening faceoff, and was rewarded when Marner pounced on a rebound in the slot to open the scoring, just 95 seconds into the contest.
Toronto extended their lead when Jake Gardiner fired a point shot through a maze of players that eluded Capitals netminder Braden Holtby. Although the officials initially disallowed the goal, the on-ice call was reversed when video review confirmed that Nazem Kadri – skating through the crease – did not make any contact with Holtby.
Suddenly the Leafs were in the driver’s seat, consistently forcing turnovers from the jittery home team.
But, about that two-goal lead thing. Yes, the Leafs’ season-long nemesis.
(To be fair, Toronto entered the game not having squandered a two-goal cushion since, well – game 82 of the regular season against Columbus, forcing the Leafs to play Washington instead of Ottawa.)
The Capitals, not about to go away quietly, pulled to within a goal just after the end of the expiration of the first penalty on a 5-on-3 power play. Trade deadline acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk broke his stick on a shot attempt, and in the instant that befuddled players on both sides scrambled to find the puck, the rubber disc came to clutch post-season performer Justin Williams. The three-time Cup winner made no mistake in finding the open cage behind Frederik Andersen to get his team on the board.
Washington’s momentum off the goal carried the home squad into the third period. With the Leafs back on their heels throughout much of the frame and heading into the 16-minute mark, defenders Martin Marincin and Connor Carrick provided too much space for Evgeny Kuznetsov and Matt Niskanen on a rush.
That’s when Andersen made the first of two costly mistakes in the game.
The Leafs goalie lost sight of Niskanen’s shot, the puck lying uncovered in the crease like a beacon for Williams. True to form, Williams cashed in, rejuvenating the once deathly silent crowd, tying the game and registering the fourth multi-goal playoff game of his career.
Back to Andersen, who gave his team a chance to steal a road victory. His 2-on-1 stop on a pass from Kuznetsov to Marcus Johansson was instrumental in keeping the game knotted at 2-2 after sixty minutes. At the onset of overtime, Andersen made a miraculous kick save off Andre Burakosky to prolong the session.
And in an instant, his overall performance went from sensational to Carlyle-Reimer-esque ‘ok’.
After a weak Martin Marincin clearing attempt was picked off by fourth liner Tom Wilson, Andersen went down to his knees early in anticipation of the shot.
The wrong move. Wilson’s shot beat Andersen high, short side, for the game-winner.
By no means did the entire defeat fall entirely on Andersen’s shoulders. The Danish keeper has been outstanding in getting the Leafs to their current position, and was full measure a 41-save effort in game one. It’s up to the netminder to move past the pair of errors in what was an otherwise solid outing.
“I thought Freddy was really good and then he would probably like to have that [overtime goal] back,” coach Babcock said at the podium. “He gave us an opportunity so I don’t think you can argue with that.”
Overall the Leafs showed no intimidation in holding Alex Ovechkin off the scoresheet and showed that they have the potential to disprove the pundits who predicted a short series in Washington’s favour, including yours truly who said that the Capitals would win in five games.
When instructing his young team on facing their opponent, Babcock stated simply: “You don’t have to watch them; you can play good.”
In 2016, Rob wrote “Hockey’s Enforcers: A Dying Breed”, now available at Chapters and Indigo stores everywhere.