TORONTO — The Maple Leafs think they could just topple a giant in the first round.
They scored their second straight overtime victory on Monday night, downing the Washington Capitals 4-3 in front of an electric Air Canada Centre crowd. Toronto now leads the best-of-seven series 2-1, suddenly with the upper hand on the best team in hockey and starting to believe in its upset potential.
"That’s been the feeling the whole time," 23-year-old defenceman Morgan Rielly said. "So that hasn’t changed."
Tyler Bozak scored the overtime winner after the Leafs dug out from deficits of 2-0 and 3-1, controlling large swaths of play against a team that piled up 55 wins and 118 points during the regular season. While the 31-year-old Bozak and a handful of veterans showed well, including Rielly, Leo Komarov and Nazem Kadri (two points), it was again the performance of youth that shone brightest.
The rookie trio of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Zach Hyman proved almost unstoppable in Game 3 — up over 70 per cent puck possession. Matthews broke his brief playoff dry spell with a goal, an assist and six shots (more than the first two games combined) while Nylander scored and managed nine shot attempts.
Hyman chased down the loose puck that led to Nylander’s first of the post-season — which brought the Leafs all the way back from 3-1 — and then drew the penalty that led to Bozak’s game-winner.
"All those guys have probably had a ton of pressure on them their whole lives," Bozak said. "They’ve probably always been the best player and the best player on their teams and have always had the pressure to play well. They’re used to it so it doesn’t faze them and you can see that when they’re out there playing."
Leafs head coach Mike Babcock sensed his group gaining confidence after nearly swiping Game 1 at Verizon Center. He felt it inch a tick higher when Game 2 was had in double overtime behind the second of two goals from another rookie, Kasperi Kapanen.
"And obviously now if you talk to our guys, our guys think they’re a good hockey team," Babcock said after the latest victory, Toronto’s first on home ice in the playoffs in nearly four years. "And they’re playing a good hockey team, but I think you gain respect for yourself and the process and you start believing that maybe you can do this."
The Leafs were doubted, in part, to beat the Caps because of their overwhelming inexperience — 10 players making their NHL playoff debuts in this series. But it’s not been an issue so far and even members of the opposition think the subject is overblown.
"At the end of the day it’s just hockey," Capitals defenceman Matt Niskanen said. "All the same things are happening, you just have a little less space, things get closed down a little quicker, the intensity’s higher, it’s a little bit more physical. (And it’s) just because the stakes are higher. And you’re not in the grind of an 82-game marathon. You’re playing in a sprint for four wins. So everything is magnified, that’s all.
"It’s the same game."
Capitals head coach Barry Trotz mirrored those thoughts when asked if Washington was surprised by the Leafs push before Game 3. He said no and recalled a conversation with Babcock as Toronto was pushing for a post-season berth.
"I said ‘there’s no question you’re going to be in (the playoffs),"’ Trotz recalled saying. "’You’re too good of a hockey team."’
"I don’t think they’re a naive group," Kadri said. "I don’t think they’re dumb by any means. I think they gave us respect. They knew we weren’t going to lie down and let them intimidate us."
Kadri pushed back against any apparent intimidation Monday when he rocked Brooks Orpik twice on the same shift. Matthews would score nine seconds after the second one to cut a 2-0 deficit in half. The 19-year-old sped through the neutral zone, fired a shot that ricocheted off a smattering of bodies and then batted a rebound behind Braden Holtby.
He became the youngest Leaf to score in the post-season since Daniel Marois in 1988.
After Washington upped its lead back to two on a goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov, Toronto required a yeoman’s effort from its penalty kill. The group managed to withstand a full two-minute 5-on-3 advantage and then, for good measure, killed off another Caps advantage a few minutes later.
Nylander evened it up at three at the tail-end of that second period. The 20-year-old Swede and his linemates were just too much for the Capitals to handle, their speed and skill overwhelming a Kuznetsov-led second line.
Babcock insisted during the regular season that the trio, and the rest from a historic rookie class, were just good players — young or not. He’s been proven correct so far opposite a deep, talented Capitals squad with Stanley Cup aspirations.
"It’s a lot closer match than people let on. It’s not David and Goliath," said Trotz. "They’re a good hockey team. They wouldn’t be here if they weren’t."