WASHINGTON — The Maple Leafs dropped Game 1 in overtime, but might have proven something to themselves anyway.
At the very least, the mostly young Leafs left Verizon Center feeling like they could hang with the best team in hockey, that defeat wasn’t inevitable against a powerful, more experienced opponent.
"I think it erases any doubts if the kids had it," said veteran Matt Hunwick after Tom Wilson scored the OT winner in the Caps 3-2 Game 1 win. "And for the most part we know we’re a good team. Now I think they know it and I think it should hopefully be a long series."
Leafs coach Mike Babcock was pleased his team started on the second night of the playoffs so that his players could get a taste of what they might be in for in Game 1. He even quizzed them on Thursday morning, wanting their impressions on the differences they distinguished from the regular season.
He wanted them to get a sense of how charged the energy in the building might be, how the intensity of each shift would be dialled up.
His group looked prepared for it.
Though nine players were making their NHL post-season debuts, the Leafs didn’t look like a team lacking in comfort on playoff terrain in the early going. They came out flying in the first 10 minutes, scoring twice and putting some fear into a Capitals squad that has a Stanley Cup-or-bust mentality.
Mitch Marner got the first goal less than two minutes in and Jake Gardiner followed up a little while after that with a marker that was waved off and then overturned on a Toronto challenge — Nazem Kadri deemed to have not touched Braden Holtby in the crease.
It was striking how cool the first-timers looked, including William Nylander, who danced with the puck and fired four shots on goal in the opening frame. The Leafs flashed their speed and an array of skills opposite a Caps team that won five more games than anyone else during the regular season while marching to their second straight Presidents’ Trophy.
"I think what they found out is you can skate with them, you can be physical, their (defencemen) give the puck to you when you’re physical just like if they’re physical with us," Babcock said. "I just think it’s important to get a taste and understand what the game is like."
Earlier in the week, Babcock prodded Washington as the team with all the pressure on its shoulders, recalling his Presidents’ Trophy-winning Detroit team which lost in the first round to Edmonton in 2006.
Whatever fear the Leafs might have instilled with their fast start eventually evaporated.
Justin Williams, a three-time Cup winner and annual playoff hero, scored the first of his two just as a five-on-three advantage expired. The puck found its way to him right in front of Frederik Andersen after Kevin Shattenkirk shattered his stick in shooting from the point.
The product of Cobourg, Ont., and 2014 Conn Smythe Trophy winner added his second of the evening, and 35th career in the post-season, with precisely four minutes to go in the second on an error by Andersen. Brilliant to that point and for much of the night, Andersen couldn’t find a Matt Niskanen shot right underneath his pads, Williams stuffing the loose puck in to bring the Caps all the way back from 2-0.
"It hit my stick weird and I thought it went over the net, behind the net," said Andersen, who finished with 41 saves and kept his team close even as the pendulum swung noticeably in the Capitals direction.
The Leafs’ share of scoring opportunities had dried up almost entirely before Wilson’s game-winner.
A Toronto native and first-round pick in 2012, Wilson swiped a Martin Marincin clearing attempt along the boards and quickly fired on Andersen, his shot beating the goaltender high for the win.
If there was a lesson afterward for the Leafs it was sticking with the program of their quick start. Namely, skating with pace and shooting the puck a lot more often. Babcock thought his team passed up too many looks — Holtby faced 37 shots, but only seven in the third –no better proof of that, Babcock said, than Wilson’s game-winner.
Containment of the Caps array of weapons will continue to pose a challenge too.
While they held Alex Ovechkin and the Washington top line off the board, despite playing without top pairing defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, the Leafs struggled with Williams, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Marcus Johansson as well as the Capitals bottom two lines.
It’s clear Babcock wants his group feeling like they have a chance to beat Washington, not to watch helplessly as stars like Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom do their thing. Thursday’s effort was a good step in that direction.
"They’re a heck of a team, but I also think we’re no slouch either," Gardiner said. "So we’re not going away."