WASHINGTON, D.C. – The calendar hasn’t flipped since these teams met in the playoffs but already the winds around them have changed.
Where once we looked at a game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals as something akin to David versus Goliath, suddenly the power structure is much less defined. It was the Caps who stepped gingerly into this post-season rematch. And it was the Caps who spoke with a heightened sense of respect for their opponent following Tuesday’s 2-0 defeat.
“I think they’re a year older, they’re more confident, they’re more seasoned,” defenceman John Carlson said after logging nearly 28 minutes of ice time against Toronto. “I think it’s about continuity, and a majority of those guys were fresh faces last year and they’ve got pretty close to the same group this year.
“That’s probably a big deal to them especially in the early going, just knowing what to expect out of each other.”
It certainly has played a big role in an impressive 5-1 start to the season for the Leafs. That, and forward depth arguably unmatched by anyone else in the NHL.
While Washington wrestles with the eroding effects of the salary cap – it lost Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson and three defencemen over the summer – Toronto is scaling up. The Leafs added 500 goal-scorer Patrick Marleau to last year’s group and shed only depth blueliners Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak in the process.
That alone accounts for some of the shifting sands.
For those that were part of a disappointing six-game series loss to the Caps, there was something symbolic about returning to Capital One Arena and leaving with two points. The Leafs are setting about charting a new course now.
“These are the big games and the good teams you get up for,” said goalie Frederik Andersen. “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 revenge.
“Obviously it doesn’t count as much, but it’s something for the future.”
“That was a hard-fought series last year,” added winger Connor Brown. “It stung us a bit. So we were excited to get back out here and improve upon last year.”
The visitors entered the night averaging more than five goals per game and they found the Caps playing tentatively. James van Riemsdyk broke free for a great early look, Zach Hyman whiffed on a pass with an empty net staring him in the face and then van Riemsdyk failed to convert a potential tick-tack-toe play with the man advantage.
“I think these teams now both respect each other a lot,” said Capitals forward Tom Wilson. “Both teams have a lot of firepower in the top six, and you know what, both teams have kind of seen what the other can do. Maybe there was a bit of a feeling-out period and respecting kind of on the defensive side of the puck. Holts made some big saves. It could have been 3-0 right out the get go. They came out flying.”
It was 0-0 heading to the third period, but Toronto had enjoyed the run of play. Eventually, the depth won out.
Fresh off a promotion from the fourth line, Brown got free at the top of the crease as teammate Morgan Rielly funnelled the puck in front. He managed to slide a rebound under Holtby at 5:53 despite having Evgeny Kuznetsov pester him on the backcheck.
The Capitals brought heavy pressure as the clocked ticked down and rookie Jakub Vrana was left biting the blade of his stick in frustration after having two chances denied by Andersen. The pressure only subsided when Nazem Kadri hit an empty net.
Still, there was a different feeling to the evening overall.
The Leafs have expanded their expectations since the last trip to Washington and aren’t the least bit surprised to be hanging with a perennial powerhouse. That’s where the bar is now set.
“I think we got a good team, and I think we can be a handful if we play right,” said coach Mike Babcock.
“It’s a good feeling, but we have to be able to do it consistently,” added Rielly. “We have some tough matchups in the near future that we’ve got to be ready for. So we take this one – it feels good – but we move on. I think we play tomorrow don’t we? Do we play tomorrow? Yeah.
“We play tomorrow (against Detroit).”
It’s easy to lose track of things when you’re living in the moment. Life moves fast.