TORONTO – The Maple Leafs playoff series with the Capitals was supposed to be a mismatch. The Capitals were the Presidents’ Trophy winners, loaded with veteran NHL superstars and playoff experience (even if it wasn’t all good). The Maple Leafs squeaked into the playoffs on the last weekend of the season, and dress seven rookies on most nights.
But after a 4-3 come-from-behind overtime win in Game 3 on Monday, the Maple Leafs have a 2-1 series lead.
And it seems what most pundits, who almost unanimously picked the Caps, didn’t account for before the series started was the Leafs’ youngsters matching the Capitals stars stride for stride.
Leafs veterans Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak connected for the overtime winner, but the all-rookie line of Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Zach Hyman was huge in getting them there.
Matthews scored in the first to get the Leafs back to 2-1 after the Caps came out flying with two quick goals. Nylander scored the tying goal late in the second after some great puck pursuit and retrieval from his linemates.
If the Leafs rookies were supposed to be intimidated by the Caps, it’s clear they are not, and if anything they are just hitting their stride.
“The games in Washington we were just scratching the surface of what we can do. We had some opportunities that we didn’t cash in,” Matthews said. “We’ve had to mature fast … but we feel comfortable going out there against anybody.”
It’s basically the same narrative that played out during the regular season – high, but measured, expectations about what the rookies can do, and then the players going out exceeding those expectations. Who would have expected the Leafs to have three rookies scored 60+ points? And who would have expected them to have a series lead against the Capitals, and be occupying space in their heads?
Through the first two games of the series, which both also went to overtime, the Capitals weren’t getting much production from their star core. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Evgeny Kuznetzsov had combined for just three points in the two games. It was easy to point the finger at them for the Capitals somewhat slow start.
It was logical to think if those three got going, the series would shift back to looking like a cakewalk for the Caps. But all three broke out on Monday, and it still didn’t matter. Each of those three scored in Game 3, but each time the Capitals built up a lead and got momentum, the Leafs rallied back. They arguably play even better when they’re trailing or tied than when they’re nursing a lead.
Maybe it’s the young legs? Most teams that play three consecutive playoff overtime games would be expected to start slowing down. But much like the regular season, the Leafs haven’t hit a wall.
“We had tons of energy – we should have played even longer on Saturday,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. “We played with great energy, great emotion.”
Through three games, Leafs rookies Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Kasperi Kapanen each have two points while Hyman and Nylander – who Babcock said played his best game as a Leafs Monday – are on the board with one each.
So after three games instead of the Leafs needing to shut down the Capitals stars to have any hope of competing, it’s the Capitals who need to find an answer for the Leafs youngsters and their seemingly boundless energy.