The last time the Toronto Maple Leafs lost a playoff series, there was a lot of talk about how a bright future was just ahead.
We all know how that turned out. Within a year after the Leafs blew a 4-1 third-period lead in Game 7 of the opening round against the Boston Bruins in May, 2013, another 18-wheeler went off a cliff and heads rolled everywhere from the front office to the dressing room.
But this time, after Leafs president Brendan Shanahan finished with his broom and then a tank job produced No. 1 overall draft pick Auston Matthews and a couple of other awful seasons resulted in high draft picks like Mitch Marner, William Nylander along with trades and free-agent signings that netted the likes of Frederik Andersen, Nikita Zaitsev, Zach Hyman and Kasperi Kapanen, the hopes for the future are legitimate.
Just ask the Washington Capitals, who cruised to first place overall in the NHL's regular season but had all they could handle with the Maple Leafs, the eighth-place qualifier in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Leafs' speed gave them fits for the whole series.
Marcus Johansson's second goal of the game at 6:31 of overtime ended the best-of-seven series Sunday night with a 4-2 Caps win but five of the six games went to overtime. Every game could have gone either way.
"You see what they're building here and the great atmosphere they've built in Leaf Nation and the fans," said Capitals head coach Barry Trotz. "What a great atmosphere in Toronto, they've got something to be very, very excited [about].
"I'll tell you, they pushed us and they hardened us in this series. That bodes well for the Leafs and I just want to congratulate them on a fantastic season. We knew it was going to be a tough series. I think we knew it more than most of the media and the general public. Because we knew how hard they were to play during the year and we had seen their growth. They've got a lot to look forward to."
The Leafs' fans, 19,740 strong at the Air Canada Centre on Sunday night along with about 5,000 more in Maple Leaf Square next door, knew what Trotz was talking about. They were stunned into silence for a few seconds by Johansson's series-winner, but gathered themselves for a loud salute to the Leafs players. After the Leafs were done with the customary handshakes with the Caps, they gave the fans a stick salute. The bad old days of Salutegate were long forgotten.
"Over the course of my five seasons there's been some ups and downs [but] the support we get is second to none and that gives you goosebumps, even after how it ended right there, how loud the building got for us," said Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk, who added that he would like to sign a long-term contract with the team this summer. "They know how far we've come and the effort we put into this. We're proud to play for this city and these fans."
No one on the team indicates how bright the future looks more than Matthews. He started his first NHL season with a big splash, scoring four goals in his first game, finished the season with 40 and is a shoo-in to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie-of-the-year.
Then, as his first taste of the playoffs went along, Matthews played better in each game. He scored in each of the series' last four games, culminating with the first goal of the game at 7:45 of the third period on Sunday, breaking the tension in a goaltenders' duel between Andersen and Braden Holtby of the Capitals.
But the Leafs could not hang on for a win in regulation time as Johansson started his scoring heroics with a goal at 12:51 to tie the score.
"It's not the best feeling but I think when you look around the locker room after the game, just sitting here, I think we gave it our all," Matthews said. "I think we left it all out on the ice. Every one of us is proud of each other. We have unbelievable support from the city of Toronto and Leafs Nation. I think for us the future is definitely bright.
"I think the [playoff] experience itself, it's hard, grind hockey. We played the best team in the league. I think we definitely gave them all they could handle. Like I said, I think we're definitely going to hold our heads up high. It's obviously not the best feeling but we definitely have to be proud of each other in this locker room."
Capitals superstar Alexander Ovechkin, who did not dominate the series but had his moments, agreed with Matthews.
"Give them credit," he said. "They battled hard. They're young but they're strong. They have a very good future. They have good young players and they will be successful in the next year and couple of years."
Ovechkin had a few words for Matthews in the handshake line: "I said, 'Great player, keep going and good luck in the future.' "
Someone else Ovechkin spoke to was Leafs centre Nazem Kadri. They were front and centre in Game 5 when Kadri sent Ovechkin to the dressing room near the end of the first period with a hip check. Ovechkin was able to return for the start of the second period. But the Capitals felt Kadri should have been drawn and quartered rather than be issued a minor penalty for the hit and spent a lot of time seeking revenge. On Sunday night, Kadri and Ovechkin tangled briefly late in the second period.
"Yeah. It's the playoffs," Ovechkin said when asked what he told Kadri." You have to sacrifice your body to have success. So you get a hit or you take a hit, it doesn't matter. You still have to be in."
It can be argued Andersen gives the Leafs almost as much hope for the future as any of the rookies. He arrived in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks and showed in his first full season as a No. 1 goaltender that he is an all-star quality one. Without Andersen on Sunday night or many other times in the series, the Capitals could have ended it earlier.
But Andersen noted, like a lot of his teammates, excitement over the future does not ease the sting of losing in the present.
"It's an empty feeling," he said. "We've grown a lot and [have] a lot to be proud of, but it's a very tough feeling right now.
"It's awesome to be in this community, to be part of this team. The support we have here is unbelievable, a lot to build off. But it's tough."