Resiliency, thy name is the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Once again, the Leafs used their speed to wriggle out of a stranglehold by the Washington Capitals and win another overtime game, this time 4-3 on Monday night. Tyler Bozak scored the winning goal at 1:37 of overtime on a power play to send 19,841 fans at the Air Canada Centre into ecstasy, not to mention many thousands more watching on the big screen next door in Maple Leaf Square.
The Leafs now have a 2-1 lead in the first-round NHL playoff series that no one predicted. But the Capitals, who cruised to first place overall in the regular season, are falling into their history of playoff flops.
It was also a coming-out party for Leafs rookie sensations Auston Matthews and William Nylander. Their line keyed the Leaf comeback, with Matthews scoring once and setting up Nylander’s goal that tied the score in regulation time.
The Capitals had no business letting this game get away from them. Forget Evgeny Kuznetsov putting one off the post and crossbar late in the third period, the Caps had two-goal leads twice and squandered a five-on-three power play.
At the same time, the Leafs may have started the game in a fog but got better as it went on. By the third period, they were taking the play to the bigger, more-experienced visitors, albeit punctuated by the odd heart-stopping Caps chance.
Before the game, some of the Leafs talked about the importance of not letting the emotions of playing in front of their own fans for the first time in the playoffs get the best of them.
“Yeah, as a team I think we have to be careful,” Leafs winger Matt Martin said before the game. “Obviously we want to hear our fans roaring but we’re playing a very strong team in the Capitals, so we’ve got to be very disciplined in what we do on the ice. We can feed off the energy in the building, use our fans to our advantage, but if you’re not dialled in and you’re letting the emotions get the best of you, we’ll make some mistakes.”
While Matthews poo-pooed the idea – “No, I don’t think that is really the case, we’ll just play hockey” – Leafs head coach Mike Babcock, like Martin, saw the potential problem. “We don’t want to be too wired up either,” he said.
The fans did start the game roaring and the Leafs did appear to be the victims of their own emotions. They had the deer-in-the-headlights look for the first time in the series and were caught standing around too often.
First, defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, playing in his first NHL playoff game after missing eight days with a suspected concussion, somehow got lost in the Leafs zone with the Capitals’ Nicklas Backstrom-Alexander Ovechkin line on the ice. This allowed Backstrom to step into a huge opening and rip a shot past goaltender Frederik Andersen.
It was the first time in the series the Capitals scored the first goal. A few minutes later, Ovechkin fired one of his patented rockets from the top of the faceoff circle and it was 2-0 for the Capitals before the game was five minutes old.
This silenced the crowd and pretty much squelched the Leafs, too. The Caps were playing the way they had not for too much of the first two games, using their size to push the Leafs around and working their transition game much faster to get the puck out of their own zone.
For their part, the Leafs spent too much time complaining to the referees and not enough time hitting and skating. But that did not last long.
Successive body checks by Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov, the latter on Ovechkin, got both the crowd and the Leafs back into the game. Within seconds, Matthews established himself as a star presence with a great shift that ended when the puck bounced off defenceman Nate Schmidt’s face and landed in front of Matthews in front of the Caps’ net and he had his first NHL playoff goal at 14:08.
Escaping to the second period with the Capitals only up 2-1 was a big break for the Leafs. But Kuznetsov scored early in the second and Washington seemingly had a stranglehold on the game again.
Even worse, a little more than a minute later, Martin succumbed to that emotion and was suckered into a double-minor penalty for roughing by Capitals agitator Tom Wilson, who was also flagged. But Leafs defenceman Matt Hunwick also drew a minor and the Caps had a five-on-three advantage for two minutes.
This is where the Leafs gathered themselves, and the Caps squandered several scoring chances, to turn the game around. The Leafs killed the penalty and eight minutes later cut the lead when Kadri bounced a shot off Caps defenceman Brooks Orpik’s rear end and into the net.
The killer for Washington came with 40 seconds left in the period. Both Kevin Shattenkirk and Orpik went after Leafs winger Zach Hyman behind the Caps net. Hyman managed to get the puck to Matthews, who relayed it to Nylander in front. He had all the time he needed to put in his own rebound for his first playoff goal to tie the score and ignite the crowd.Report Typo/Error