Before this NHL playoff series began, it was all about hope.
As in, how the Toronto Maple Leafs didn't have any against the Washington Capitals, a team that may have playoff baggage, but is now big, strong and fast, and cruised to first place overall by playing it any way it needed to. The Leafs were a bunch of rookies and guys a little bit older, but still kids, and sure, they could play, but when the heavy playoff hockey started, well, thanks for coming out fellows but your education will continue in the fall.
Only now, after two wacky, cartoonish roller-coaster rides where one minute the Leafs are barely hanging on and the next they are the Katzenjammer Kids, roaring around and driving the adults crazy, there really is hope. As in, hope they can actually steal this series from an opponent that must surely be feeling some nervous tremors.
After two wildly entertaining overtime games, in which the Leafs could have lost both or won both, they came home with a 1-1 split in the first-round, best-of-seven series. This was thanks to their 4-3 win in double overtime Saturday night amid an ear-splitting din at the Verizon Center powered by thousands of giveaway cowbells.
Now the Leafs get to go for the lead in Game 3 on Monday night in front of their own fans, who will surely forget their usual corporate reserve and be screaming their heads off at the Air Canada Centre, not to mention the really crazy ones a few steps away in Maple Leaf Square in front of the big screen.
While the youthful Leafs are, by and large, an unassuming bunch, it is easy to imagine them away from the cameras, laughing and channelling the banditos in Blazing Saddles: "Experience? We don't need no stinking experience."
Well, goaltender Frederik Andersen, who was really good in Game 1 save for an unfortunate whiff on the game-winner and superb in Game 2, practically said as much.
"I don't think we expect to just have an experience," he said. "We want to be here for real and play as good as we can. Everyone's talking about how it's been unexpected for us to just make the playoffs but we want to do more. We want to show we can play."
But they are getting lots of playoff experience, and fast. Fully half of their 18 skaters had not played an NHL postseason game when the series opened last Thursday. Now they have nine periods of it in what was supposed to be six periods of hockey.
The success is because a lot of the Leafs are growing quickly right in front of everyone's eyes. No one is doing that more than defenceman Morgan Rielly, 23, who played better in the first two games of this series than he did in most nights in the regular season. He is logging top-dog minutes and he scored his first NHL playoff goal on a late second-period power play.
This is fortuitous timing for the Leafs because they now have to rely on Rielly and fellow defenceman Jake Gardiner, who has been right there with him in the stellar-play department. Roman Polak is not going to play again this season after suffering a gruesome injury to his right leg in the second period on Saturday.
Leafs head coach Mike Babcock essentially went with four defencemen after that, with Rielly and Gardiner both logging more than 40 minutes of ice time. Matt Hunwick and Martin Marincin were in the 30-minute range while Connor Carrick was used sparingly to spell them off.
The hope is that Nikita Zaitsev, who's been out since the last weekend of the regular season with a suspected concussion, will be able to return on Monday. But Babcock, who gave the Leafs Sunday off after they got in from Washington at 3:30 a.m., said that still won't be known until after Monday's game-day skate. Otherwise, it's No. 8 defenceman Alexey Marchenko.
Capitals head coach Barry Trotz is rubbing his hands together at the prospect of an already thin Leafs defence taking another hit. He said Sunday he thought some of the defencemen were sorely taxed and the Capitals will keep the heat on.
"This series is about wearing people down, and I think we're fine that way," Trotz said. "We need to sort of pound the rock, if you will, and see if we can wear people down. Their [defence] got extended pretty hard [Saturday] night in a lot of areas. Those 40-plus minutes, those are hard to recover from."
Rielly, though, doesn't see the problem.
"As far as minutes go, we'll be fine, we've got young legs," Rielly said. "We've got lots of training staff. We know what we have to do to prepare for the next game."
Rielly thinks the Leafs are managing to overcome some big mistakes, and there were a few more in Game 2, because they are a close-knit team that looks out for each other.
"I think over the course of a game that long [on Saturday] it's draining mentally and it's easy to make mistakes," he said. "But I think we did a good job as a team backing each other up, picking each other up when we needed to."