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Andre Burakovsky #65 of the Washington Capitals tries to get a puck at Frederik Andersen #31 of the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, April 17, 2017 in Toronto. (Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Andre Burakovsky #65 of the Washington Capitals tries to get a puck at Frederik Andersen #31 of the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, April 17, 2017 in Toronto. (Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Kelly: With Leafs in playoffs, fans have zero expectations Add to ...

When the Washington Capitals had their traditional playoff humiliation last year, Alex Ovechkin was asked to put it all in perspective.

The Russian star seems to enjoy his role of as a graduate of the Conan the Barbarian School of Public Speaking – skimpy with the verbs and adverbs; then really hitting the nouns. But when he cares to be, Ovechkin can be very conversant in his second language.

“Every year, lots of expectations, lots of great players, but something missing,” he said. “We have the best goalie in the league, we have a solid group of guys on the defensive side, all four lines can play well. You can see it.”

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Maple Leafs, Senators take lead in series; elimination looms for Flames, Hawks

Except for those times you can’t. Which would be all the times that matter.

After blowing two two-goal leads and a five-on-three second-period power play on Monday night, the Capitals are doing it again.

It’s happening so quickly, you can imagine the whole Washington team writhing around on the locker-room floor between periods, horror-movie-style, as their regular-season Jekyll transforms into postseason Hyde.

Meanwhile, the Leafs are sitting across the hall listening to all the screaming going on in the visitor’s dressing room, drawing their overtime pool picks out of a helmet. Everybody got “Tyler Bozak,” because they all won 4-3.

Three games into this thing, with Toronto leading the series 2-1, a few things have become clear. The process is working; the Leafs cannot lose (even if they end up losing); and that dropping down to eighth seed the day before the playoffs started was a gift so divine we must assume the heavens parted over the Air Canada Centre as it happened, allowing a single shaft of light to fall upon the House Where Hockey Goes to Die.

Because Washington had to – had to, had to, had to – win this first round. All Toronto had to do was show up on time and not put a dozen goals into their own net or run over anyone with a Zamboni.

We can spend all day breaking down the minutiae of tactics – and if this keeps up, all terrestrial TV and radio will soon be dedicated to that exercise – but the only meaningful factor at play is pressure.

Every last ounce of it has been laid across the Capitals’ shoulders. By the time we get around to Game 4 on Wednesday, Washington is going to come out looking like a group of skating hunchbacks.

When asked to discuss Cartesian epistemology and the difference between certainty and doubt (possibly not in those exact words) after Monday’s game, Capitals defenceman Matt Niskanen told reporters, “Until we change the narrative, that’s going to be the question.”

Whenever a hockey player begins philosophizing in public, or starts using words like “narrative,” you know he is not in a good headspace. The terrible thing about doubt is that as soon as you stop to consider it, you are – ipso facto – doubting.

What are Toronto players talking about? The usual nonsense about believing in your teammates, taking your chances and 110-per-cent effort. In the best possible sense, the Leafs aren’t thinking at all at the moment. They’re busy doing.

In any other year over the last 50, this would not have been possible. Customarily, the Toronto Maple Leafs are not judged on their place in the standings, their personnel or their quality, but on their Toronto Maple Leafsness.

The usual local calculus is that the team isn’t very good, but owes it to the city to be much, much better in any case. Somehow, Toronto had convinced itself that tradition and expectation can act like a sixth man on the ice – that it’s some sort of advantage whenever people want it to be. Like magic.

Evidently, it hasn’t been. According to many leading hockey scientists, Toronto’s habit of putting its mouth an inch from the Leafs’ ear and shrieking, “Try harder, stupid!” is not an effective spur to performance.

Ask the Capitals about that right now. Expectation is a millstone around the neck of any team that has experienced it firsthand and failed to follow through. Every successive time, it gets exponentially heavier.

Eventually, you end up like Washington on Tuesday night, wound up like a rubber-band ball, taking a penalty a few seconds before the end of third, and knowing in your rapidly blackening professional heart that this is not going your way.

It’s just a look they have. It’s difficult to describe, but you know it when you see it. The Capitals know it, too. If they were feeling swamped before this thing started, they are now forehead-deep in sticky uncertainty.

In its weird way, Washington as a sports town is Toronto’s American doppelganger. Fans there have passed beyond disappointment into cynical despair.

When the Capitals lost last year, a local rag ran a satirical piece proposing a fill-in-the-blanks season-ending story for use in all situations. For instance: “Another promising (SPORT) season came to a premature end last night as (WASHINGTON SPORTS FRANCHISE) fell to the (TEAM WITH A WORSE REGULAR SEASON RECORD) eliminating them from the playoffs.”

To which not-so-long-ago Toronto might reply, “At least you’re making the playoffs.”

Present-day Toronto still knows how they feel. We’ve been there before. Our therapist keeps asking about it.

But the city’s pitchforks remain stored in backyard sheds. There will be no need of them this time around.

Even if the Leafs lose this thing, no one will succumb to frustrated rage, or demand the coach should be fired, or give a lot of non-nautical thought to “changing course.”

For the first time in forever, nothing beyond decent effort is expected from the local hockey club. Up a game, there are still no expectations.

Which is exactly why they might win.

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