The Toronto Maple Leafs have a tough hill to climb if they hope to usurp the Washington Capitals in their first-round series, but the team's young guns have already surpassed some pretty high expectations this season.
We often speak of players hitting a "rookie wall" in their first NHL campaign and one of the reasons Toronto is in the playoffs -- and gave Washington a scare in Game 1 -- is that their kids really didn't slow down. Calder Trophy front-runner Auston Matthews had 14 points in his last 15 regular season games, while running mate William Nylander posted 13. Connor Brown had eight, getting himself to the 20-goal plateau. Mitch Marner only had seven, but he had a five-game point streak right before that, and scored the first goal of the game on Thursday. All four finished the campaign with positive Corsi For percentages.
"It's really impressive," said alternate captain Morgan Rielly. "They've done lots of amazing things all year. Right from training camp and right from the World Cup for Auston, people were saying how good they were. And they've maintained it."
Even some of the best freshmen in the NHL of late have hit the rookie wall -- Patrik Laine tailed off in Winnipeg this season, while Dylan Larkin struggled through his final quarter with Detroit last year (Larkin also struggled this year, but who didn't in Detroit? I still have faith in the kid). But apparently, there's safety in numbers.
"We're all just working together," Marner said. "Everyone in here has been great, all the younger guys helping and teaching us. We took care of ourselves all season long and that's the big reason."
The physical key has been rest. While it may be fun to be an NHLer for the first time and find yourself surrounded by other rookies - Toronto dressed anywhere from seven to nine of them on any given night - it's also a job and that's something that has come more into focus in the past few years. Players are getting better training in the summers, more guidance from agents or programs (the U.S. NTDP is particularly good here) and their nutrition is better (just ask a 35-year-old veteran what their first time at a grocery store alone was like, it'll be a fun story). And they listen to their bodies when it comes to the need for rest.
"It's massive," Brown said. "It's a big grind in this league, playing every other night. So when you have an off day, you have to take advantage. And they do such a great job taking care of us here. We still feel fresh."
Brown had a pretty big junior season with the OHL's Erie Otters in 2013-14, but even that was just 68 games plus a long playoff run that added up to 82 games total. The NHL is very different, especially since the junior schedule is often weekend-heavy, leaving many week days off in a row for recuperation. But apart from the physical aspect of staying sharp, there's also the mental game and that can be just as much of a grind.
There were periods this season where even Matthews was held off the scoresheet for a while, but the team was winning and the big center was doing other things to help. Still, that can be a lot to deal with for a young player trying to make a good impression and teammates helped the Toronto kids stay even-keel.
"The veterans have done a good job giving us confidence to play game in and game out," Brown said. "And the coaches go along with that, trusting us and letting us play. I feel like we've grown because of it."
Have they grown enough to take four games from the Presidents' Trophy champs from Washington? That's a pretty steep climb. But based off the regular season results, when the Maple Leafs rookies have spent the last fuel in their gas tanks, it'll be in the final game of their season and not a moment before that.