TORONTO – The scoreboard read 5-4 and the landmines were scattered everywhere.
About the only victory the Toronto Maple Leafs could claim on Wednesday night is that they managed to pack up and leave Air Canada Centre without stepping on any of them.
There were several different ways a Game 4 loss could have been chalked up as an aw-shucks near-miss, from the 19-3 shots advantage over Washington in the third period to the fact they came within a botched 1-on-4 clearing attempt from forcing overtime.
But the Leafs instead took a deeper level of self-reflection and thus avoided lying to themselves about what really happened here.
“For sure, it is a lost opportunity,” said head coach Mike Babcock. “It doesn’t feel like it – it is. I think Game 1 in their building you could say that, but I didn’t feel like that, I just felt that was a confidence builder for our team. You’re playing a team, they’re the best team in hockey and here you are.
“I thought today was the first time that maybe we weren't scared enough of them and it looked like it because our competition level wasn’t good enough.”
They had a chance to shove Washington to the edge of a cliff. An opportunity to create one serious pucker in the U.S. capital.
Then they were thoroughly dominated for 39 minutes 53 seconds, and extremely fortunate to only be trailing 4-2 when Lars Eller and Brooks Orpik each took brain-cramp penalties. That offered a lifeline in the form of a lengthy 5-on-3 power play, which helped spark a furious third-period rally that fell short.
However, none of that should mask the gulf between the teams beforehand, when Washington broke free of the mounting doubts around it and built a 44-24 edge in shot attempts at even strength. The Capitals brought pressure and neutral-zone structure.
It almost looked as though the Leafs were stuck in mud.
“We didn’t play anywhere close to what we’re capable of,” lamented goalie Frederik Andersen, who included his own performance in that blunt assessment. “We know that. We know what to do, we know how to play.”
Added forward Connor Brown: “When we skate well we’re tough to handle and we showed that in the later parts of these last two games. So I think it comes down to giving ourselves a shot and executing right out of the gate.”
That would seem to be particularly imperative for Game 5 on Friday night, when the Leafs head into the rocking red Verizon Center trying to find another victory. With the series now down to a best-of-three, they will need to win at least one more time in D.C. to advance.
The good news for Toronto is that these games tend to be like snowflakes. No two are exactly alike.
And the fact they demonstrated no open signs of delusion after Game 4 would suggest there’ll be a heightened level of preparation. The Leafs wound up ahead in shots (34-27) and high-danger scoring chances (11-6), and nearly erased 2-0 and 4-1 deficits, but they failed to impose their will on the Presidents’ Trophy winners.
Save for a brief scramble in the dying seconds with Andersen on the bench, Washington never had so much as a kernel of doubt placed in its mind.
“Honestly, I thought we played a pretty good 60 minutes,” said agitator Tom Wilson, who scored twice in a building where he once dreamed of being a Leaf.
The challenge on both sides is largely between the ears. There will be adjustments, sure, but execution is paramount in a series where the aggregate score is 14-14 and the total shots are 150-147 in favour of Toronto.
“All we can do is control the way we prepare,” said Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly. “We have confidence that if we play our system and as good as we can, have a good start and do everything we need to do, we’ll keep winning games. The players don’t change for the most part, the systems don’t change (but) the will to win, the drive, the competitiveness can change, the focus (can) change.
“So it’s a matter of being on top of all those things.”
Mental lapses will become even more costly now.
The Leafs failure to score on a 5-on-3 that spanned 1:53 – just like the Capitals' inability to covert on one that lasted a full two minutes in Game 3 – was a huge blown opportunity. Having four players around a puck and failing to safely clear it with only Andre Burakovsky forechecking was inexcusable.
Especially since it immediately ended up on T.J. Oshie’s stick for the game-winner.
“Yeah, I tried to flip ‘er up and then fumbled it and then it was in a pile and it was just kind of lost in our feet,” said Brown. “That’s the way it goes.”
It simply wasn’t a night where they did enough right to win. Perhaps it’s a sign of maturity, or at least a proper mentality, that they so willingly acknowledged that.
“The way I look at this is when you compete at a real high level, lots of things go your way,” said Babcock. “When you don’t, they don’t go your way. Hockey is a fair game. Ninety-nine per cent of the time the team that competes the hardest wins.
“I thought today’s game was fair.”