Capitals give Maple Leafs a glimpse of what’s to come

Lars Eller and Kevin Shattenkirk both scored their 12th goals of the season and the Washington Capitals snapped the Toronto Maple Leafs four-game win streak.

TORONTO – Even in the foggy final days of this crammed NHL schedule, the significance of the moment was not lost on its participants.

More than just Game No. 79, a regular old meeting between Washington and Toronto, this was perhaps a glimpse into the near future. The Capitals and Maple Leafs would be first-round opponents if the playoffs started today, and that may still be true when they get going for real next week.

There isn’t any comfort in that thought if you bleed blue and white – not after the season Washington put together and the way it dismantled a tired Leafs team 4-1 on Tuesday.

Deep down, the players knew it too.

You need to go through the best to become the best, but as Leafs defenceman Connor Carrick put it: "The path of least resistance, I think, is something to shoot for."

In Toronto’s case, that would mean putting together a strong three-game stretch after a much-needed day of rest on Wednesday. The Leafs could still yet climb out of the wild-card spot and face Boston or Ottawa in the first round, and you’d have to think either scenario would be favourable to drawing the Presidents’ Trophy winners.

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First on the agenda is beating Tampa on Thursday night.

That would officially eliminate the Lightning while clinching a playoff spot for the Leafs. They actually could have done that against Washington, but it was clear by the second intermission the "X" was going to have to wait.

The Caps had the benefit of sitting in Toronto on Monday night while their opponent played in Buffalo. They’d also had time to consider the possibility of a Round 1 matchup and wanted to plant a seed of doubt … just in case.

"Absolutely," said defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk. "That’s something we never lost sight of – that we could see these guys. More than that, we respect these guys and the skill they have on the ice. We know (coach Mike) Babcock’s going to coach them well and play the right way, and I think we were able to really take over the game."

This was no contest.

It was a battle of the backups, with Philipp Grubauer going against Curtis McElhinney, and the Capitals exerted their will early. The shots were 13-3 at the first intermission. The score was 2-0 Washington by the second.

"To me, we didn’t measure anything," said Babcock. "We didn’t find out how good they were because we didn’t push them at all. To me, it was a one-sided game, they were better than us from start to finish.

"We had (solid) eight minutes or something there at the start of the second, but other than that they were bigger, stronger, faster, quicker, more organized. Better."

It was a small reminder of what is coming, whether they face Washington to open the playoffs or someone else.

After running through a gauntlet of games with an 11-3-1 record, Carrick’s first instinct was to take Tuesday’s game tape and "throw it out" – something that’ll be easier to do if they manage to avoid making a trip to Verizon Center in the near future.

"We’re going to play a lot of hockey this week," said Carrick. "But at the same time you can tell that’s a playoff team, they’re starting to ramp up, the pace is going to get better from here. Columbus is going to be trying to play a top-notch game – Pittsburgh, Tampa – I actually don’t know the order of who we’re playing next (to finish the regular season).

"Teams are trying to roll at 100 per cent here."

Washington is, at minimum, a co-favourite with Pittsburgh to come out of the Eastern Conference this spring. They’re playing with tons of confidence right now and have a skilled, deep team capable of bringing the first ever Stanley Cup to D.C.

They are the kind of team that gets scoring from everywhere; the kind of team the Leafs believe they’re on the way to becoming.

They may also soon be the team the Leafs have to try and beat four times in a seven-game series.

"There are more parallels than differences there," said Carrick, who was acquired by Toronto in trade with Washington last season. "That’s a team that systematically and habit-wise – all of the buzz words that we use are used over there, a lot of them, too. (Capitals coach Barry) Trotz, Babcock, you know Hockey Canada.

"They all cheat off each other, they all look at each other’s tests."

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