WASHINGTON, D.C. – Barry Trotz called it a “wake-up call.”
Just the kind of thing his Washington Capitals need at the start of a spring where they’re expected to make a serious run at the Stanley Cup.
For the Toronto Maple Leafs, it was a two-sided coin. Proof that they can push the Presidents’ Trophy winners – at least for 30 minutes – but also a golden opportunity squandered in a series where most aren’t even giving them a chance.
“Our big thing is we’ve got to (win) a game here because we’ve got to keep it tight so they stay tight,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said after Thursday’s 3-2 overtime loss. “If they get too loose it’ll make it too easy for them.”
It should say something that Trotz opened Game 1 so confident in his forward depth that he chose not to aggressively chase line matchups in the first period. The Leafs were good enough for long enough that he abandoned the strategy after the intermission.
“I felt that we could go head-to-head with (Nazem) Kadri,” Trotz explained. “That line did a really good job on our line and I just started moving it around. I was looking for energy. I was looking for something different.
“We were sort of stuck in the mud early and then we started getting our legs and we started skating and we started moving the puck and we started playing quick and we started getting a lot more opportunities.”
They were outshot 25-15 through the first half of the game and wound up leading 29-12 from that point on. The last of those came off the stick of fourth-line agitator Tom Wilson, the Toronto native who surprised Frederik Andersen with a high shot from a tight angle 5:15 into overtime.
The Leafs feel they proved something by coming into the cowbell-ringing lion’s den that is Verizon Center, and quickly building a 2-0 lead. Heavy underdogs against a team that finished the regular season with 28 more points in the standings, they briefly pushed the Capitals into an uncomfortable position.
“I thought we skated real well,” said Leafs defenceman Matt Hunwick, who played a game-high 26:04. “The first period we came out and we certainly showed that we can play with them. I think it erases any doubts if the kids had it.
“I think for the most part we know that we’re a good team. Now I think they know it and I think it should hopefully be a long series.”
Game 1 was certainly closer than most anticipated, with Washington controlling a little more than 51 per cent of shot attempts at even strength and repeatedly getting thwarted by Andersen when they got a good look.
Toronto also did a nice job of neutralizing the high-powered Alex Ovechkin–Nicklas Backstrom–T.J. Oshie line, keeping those players to five shots on goal despite playing without injured defenceman Nikita Zaitsev.
Asked about the job they did on Ovechkin, Babcock scanned the game sheet: “Let me look here – it looks alright, but it looks like Williams had a good night though. You know what I mean?”
The Williams he’s referring to is Justin Williams, the 2014 Conn Smythe Trophy winner who scored both of Washington’s goals in regulation to erase the early deficit. He redirected home a lovely T.J. Oshie pass just after a 5-on-3 power play expired in the first period and went hard to the net with four minutes remaining in the second when Andersen lost track of a rebound.
It was too loud to even hear yourself think with the score tied 2-2 in the third period and the tension only built from there. Braden Holtby denied Mitch Marner from in close late in regulation while Andersen stretched out a pad to stop Brooks Orpik in overtime before following it up with a desperation stop on Andre Burakovsky.
There is no replicating this atmosphere or these stakes in the regular season.
It’s why those at the top of the organization thought it was important enough to make the playoffs that they sent a second-round pick to Tampa at the trade deadline to acquire veteran Brian Boyle. They are learning on the fly – the nine players who made their debut in the Stanley Cup playoffs here – and they showed the moment wasn’t too big.
“I think they probably thought it was fun,” said Babcock. “I kept trying to tell them we’ve got good players, we’re allowed to play at a high level. We’ve got some really good players – play. You don’t want to watch them – play. I think if you’re (Matthews) or you’re Mitch or you’re (Nylander) or (Brown) or those guys, let’s play.
“You don’t have to watch them; you can play good.”
We are all still learning what they are.
Babcock made it clear that a win in Game 2 on Saturday night is essential if they want to put any doubts in the minds of the Caps, but there is a larger objective at play than simply this one series.
It was exactly two years to the day since president Brendan Shanahan laid out a vision that became known as the Shanaplan – “there are no short cuts,” he said that day in 2015 – and in many ways the build continues.
The Leafs lost the game, but they showed something in the process. They’ve made up considerable ground on the NHL’s best.
“They’re a heck of a team, but I also think we’re no slouch either,” said Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner. “So we’re not going away.”