Confident Leafs no longer the underdog against Capitals

Kyle Bukauskas, Nick Kypreos and Elliotte Friedman discuss the weather that is proving to be a disruption for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals ahead of their outdoor game in Annapolis.

ANNAPOLIS, Md. – It has been but 313 days.

Not even a full turn of the calendar since the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs wrapped up a first-round playoff series, and yet the dynamic of the matchup has changed.

Toronto no longer occupies the underdog role. It is a team that’s scaled new heights over the last 10 months – scoring more, winning more – and looks back at that six-game series with the Capitals as a springboard to its success.

"The experience that we had last year in the playoffs against these guys, even though we didn’t win the series, I think we proved to ourselves that we can play with those high-end teams," said Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly. "I think that moving forward we have to believe in ourselves. We’ve got a good thing going."

There is a confidence, not to mention a little swagger, to this group now. It is a product of the 13-2-2 stretch the Leafs take into Saturday’s outdoor game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, but also the lessons learned from disappointment.

They lost three of those playoff games to Washington in overtime last spring. They blew a third-period lead late in Game 6. They may have been underdogs, but that series was up for grabs.

"I just think we’re significantly better because our young guys are better, they’re harder, they’ve been through it more, they’ve seen what it’s like," Leafs coach Mike Babcock says now. "They’ve been eliminated from the playoffs. They know right away here that you get into the playoffs then 10 days later one of you is moving on, one of you goes home.

"These are all lessons you talk about, but until you’ve been through ‘em, you don’t know."

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As they prepared to step on a national stage at the home of NCAA football’s Navy Midshipmen, the Leafs were a team with a top-five goaltender in Frederik Andersen. They also featured four players that have topped 20 goals as part of a lineup that can overwhelm opponents with its scoring depth.

Everything has fallen into place nicely since Babcock shuffled his group before a Jan. 24 visit to Chicago – moving Mitch Marner up to Nazem Kadri’s wing while creating an effective fourth line built around Kasperi Kapanen and Leo Komarov.

The Leafs don’t boast one individual scorer as dangerous as Alex Ovechkin, especially with Auston Matthews out nursing a separated shoulder, but they tend to get the job done by committee.

"Everybody knows how good Toronto is, how talented they are," said Ovechkin, who sits three goals shy of 600 for his NHL career.

When Babcock surveys where his team has come since last spring, he describes the growth as "significant."

"The first thing that happens when you’re not a very good team is no one takes you very seriously so you play a lot of those wishy-washy games," he said. "You don’t know you’re in ‘em at the time, but then when you play this year and you’re a good team and every night you’re getting a real game, you know how much harder it is to get points.

"But that’s how you build your team so when you come into playoffs you’re battle-tested already."

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It’s already clear that the test ahead will be stern. The NHL’s divisional playoff format dictates that Toronto will likely have to beat both Boston and Tampa just to reach the Eastern Conference final. Two-time defending champion Pittsburgh could loom there, or perhaps even these Capitals.

Yes, the Leafs still have a couple mountains to climb before anyone is talking about the end of a 51-year Stanley Cup drought. But at least they seem to be on course.

"Don’t get me wrong, we’re still going to have lots of highs and lots of crushing lows," said Babcock. "That’s part of being on a good team. But you want to set yourself up for as many opportunities as you can possibly have and I think we’re going in the right direction."

It’s something his players sense as well.

They sit sixth overall in the NHL in points percentage with just five weeks left in the season. You can almost see the playoffs on the horizon.

"I really like what we’re doing here," said Andersen. "I think Lou [Lamoriello], [Brendan Shanahan] and Babs are creating a community and a culture. A culture of winning. It goes with our efforts in everything we do, and every time we step on the ice it’s fast-paced. You guys see our practices where [Babcock] runs them, he gets them done quick and it’s straight to the point.

"It’s exactly what we’ve got to work on and he gets that work done without wasting time."

No wonder they’ve come so far, so fast.

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