WASHINGTON — Mike Babcock had one of the most prolific teams the NHL had ever seen in the spring 2006.
Loaded with future hall of famers like Nicklas Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan and Steve Yzerman, the Detroit Red Wings became only the fifth team in history to win at least 58 games. But after four games of their first round series with Edmonton — a team that had 17 less wins and 29 fewer points during the regular season — Detroit stood even at two games apiece.
The Red Wings dropped the next two as their historic season fell by the wayside.
Eleven years later, Babcock finds himself on the opposite end of things. He’s now looking for an upset as the head coach of an underdog Maple Leafs squad tied 2-2 with a seemingly superior Capitals foe.
"We’re in a great situation," Babcock said Thursday before his team left for Game 5 Washington.
"This is our opportunity. We earned this opportunity. Let’s make good on this opportunity. I’m not trying to tell you, ‘Oh hey they’re young, we shouldn’t win.’ I never said that."
Babcock has being pushing that message from the day the Leafs cracked the playoffs. He’s wanted his group to believe that even the tallest giants can be cut out at the knees during the post-season. If the ’06 Oilers, a relatively mediocre group led in scoring during the regular season by Ales Hemsky, can upend one of the best teams in history, why couldn’t his promising squad do the unlikely and beat the Caps?
Babcock wants his group embracing the moment, not because there won’t be more opportunities down the line, but because this one is here right now. Don’t wait for an uncertain future either, Babcock seemed to suggest.
"I’ve pretty much been living proof of that," said veteran winger James van Riemsdyk.
The 27-year-old went to the Stanley Cup final as a rookie with Philadelphia in 2010.
"Here we are seven years later and I think the longest I’ve stayed in the playoffs since then is the second round," he said. "So again you never really know how these things can align. There’s so many different things that can happen like injuries and that sort of that stuff, so while you’re here you’ve just got to make the most of it and not worry about the next year."
Expectations for Washington this spring mirror those of Babcock’s Detroit squad from back in the day.
The Capitals were built to win now with a number of key regulars, including Justin Williams, T.J. Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk, all headed for unrestricted free agency and a few more beyond that, such as Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov, headed for restricted free agency.
Alex Ovechkin, meanwhile, is 31 and coming off one of his least productive NHL seasons and Nicklas Backstrom turns 30 in November.
Washington won’t be this good or deep again any time soon — and they know it.
Babcock told his players Thursday morning to embrace the opportunity of "bonus" hockey. He imagined them doing cartwheels before the series if they knew they’d be even at two heading into Game 5.
His team is coming off its least impressive showing of the playoffs though, a 5-4 defeat in Game 4 which saw them battered over 40 minutes before rallying late.
The Capitals scored two in the first five minutes for the second straight game and had four by Frederik Andersen when a period was in the books. Babcock said it was "the fist time that maybe we weren’t scared enough of them and it looked like it because our competition level wasn’t good enough."
Brian Boyle, by far the Leafs most experienced post-season player, said the games only get harder as a series goes deeper. The two teams start to hate one another a little more, he said, and learn one another’s tricks. Faceoffs, for instance, suddenly started favouring the Capitals after early domination by Toronto.
"We started out hot, they made adjustments, (and now) we’ve got to make to more adjustments and figure out ways to get the puck back," Boyle said.
"There’s a lot more at stake and a lot less recovery space if that makes any sense," added Babcock.
Washington hogged the puck for much of Game 4 and has a slight edge in possession through four games, but other than that the series is pretty close to even.
Both teams have scored 14 goals and the Leafs have managed a mere three more shots (150-147).
Regular-season success, in other words, has meant very little.
"We just gotta know that it’s going to be hard," Boyle said. "It’s going to get harder and harder as it goes along. It always does."