It was only five months ago, but a lot has changed since the Toronto Maple Leafs last visited the Washington Capitals.
That was back on April 21 and the sign on Capital One Arena still read “Verizon Center.” The top seeded Capitals, bounding through the start of what was supposed to be a Stanley Cup run, had a roster devoid of question marks. Then the eighth seeded Maple Leafs injected one into their playoff series. Could the top seeded Caps actually lose to a group of kids with no playoff experience?
After the Leafs lost Game 5 on a Justin Williams game winner that pushed them to the edge of elimination https://www.tormapleleafsfans.com/leo-k ... -c-18.html, a reporter heard Toronto Coach Mike Babcock guaranteeing a Game 6 win and return trip to Washington to every arena staffer he passed.
“See you in a couple days,” Babcock was heard saying. He turned out to be wrong. The young group of players overcome by the Caps in six games, a group that earned praise for hanging tough in the franchise’s first playoff series since 2013, returned to Washington Tuesday night. And they returned as a much more impressive team.
This time they left Washington with a 2 0 win to improve to 5 1 0. It is largely the same group that pushed the Capitals to five overtime games in that six game series in April, save for a few veteran additions and shifts along the blue line. The expectations for the Maple Leafs have already heightened this season, but they also seem capable of meeting them.
Last season https://www.tormapleleafsfans.com/josh- ... -c-17.html, they sneaked into the playoffs as the eighth seed and counted a tight first round exit as an accomplishment. This season they have the league’s best offense 4.7 goals per game and, by grinding out an ugly win at Capital One Arena, showed they can win without lighting up the scoreboard. The Leafs were never going to glide below the surface for long, especially with 20 year old star Auston Matthews leading their blink and you’ll miss it attack. Now, with early season wins over the Capitals, Blackhawks and Rangers, the league is on full notice.
“You’re never happy with losing, especially in the playoffs, but we were a young team and it felt like we earned some respect with the way we played the Capitals last season https://www.tormapleleafsfans.com/patri ... -c-16.html,” Maple Leafs defenseman Connor Carrick said Tuesday morning. “And now, in just a short time, you go from that surprise team to one that everyone is prepared for. It feels like that is where we are headed at the start of this year, if we’re not there already.”
Tuesday’s win was, if nothing else Morgan Rielly Jersey, another incremental step toward that.
It was not the typical game the Leafs have played this season. They started the season with a 7 2 win over the Jets, won 8 5 over the Rangers three nights later and, before facing the Capitals, had allowed two or more goals in their first five contests.
[Caps tighten up defensively but offense struggles in loss to Maple Leafs]
In the opening moments against the Capitals, the Leafs’ top line of Zach Hyman, Matthews and William Nylander wove through a depleted defense and repeatedly put the puck in dangerous spots. Then the game settled and, outside of the few quality chances passed back and forth, Matthews and the 21 year old Nylander could not finish displays of deft stickhandling and passing.
As in the April playoff series, the Leafs used their speed, flaunted across four lines, to turn errant bounces into scoring chances. That just didn’t translate to much against the steady Braden Holtby. Matthews, who already has eight points five goals, three assists , was held without one for the first time this season. But the Maple Leafs were anchored by their defense and goaltender Frederik Andersen, and Connor Brown punched in a third period rebound for the game winner. Nazem Kadri later added an empty net goal.
“These are the big games, the good teams you get up for,” Andersen said. “I think you want to kind of measure yourself a little bit, especially since they beat us last year in the playoffs. I think it’s fun for us to come down here and get a little bit of revenge. Obviously it doesn’t count as much, but it’s something for the future.”
Statistics are subject to sharp swings at this time of the season, but the Maple Leafs entered Tuesday allowing the third most goals in the NHL and woke up Wednesday morning with the league’s 19th best defense. They also woke up with a fifth win, which they didn’t get until Nov. 5 last season. That team was ultra talented and fighting growing pains. This team is ultra talented and, seemingly, grown.
The last time the Maple Leafs were talking in Washington’s visiting locker room, they discussed what it felt like to compete with one of the league’s top teams. This time, they talked about being in the thick of that group. This time, as the room quickly emptied, and the Leafs’ big blue equipment bags were rolled to the bus, and the players laughed and picked at a postgame meal of wraps and fruit, Babcock didn’t need to convince anyone of this team’s worth.
“I think it should just build some momentum, but also realize how much work you have to put in in order to beat those teams,” said Patrick Marleau, who signed in Toronto this offseason, said of the team’s early wins over more established franchises. “You know, teams are going to be coming in being ready for us, and we have to be up to the challenge.”
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