The roller-coaster season of the Toronto Maple Leafs came to an end Sunday night, but what a ride it was.
Marcus Johansson of the Washington Capitals scored at 6:31 of overtime to give the Capitals a 2-1 win and a 4-2 win in the best-of-seven first-round NHL playoff series. It was his second goal of the game, as he scored the tying marker in the third period. That was the result almost everyone predicted but no one forecast what a fight the upstart Maple Leafs would give the Capitals, who cruised to first place overall in the regular season.
It also points to better seasons ahead, with longer playoff runs, although the pain of losing was acute.
Of the series' six games, five went to overtime and each game could have been won by either team. Quite an accomplishment for the Leafs, who finished last overall a year ago and out of the playoffs.
"It's the most fun I've had playing hockey all year, so I'm excited for next year but it sucks right now," said left winger Zach Hyman. "It's awful and you can't really think about too much. It's an awful feeling.
"They were one-goal games and could have gone either way in every game. That's playoffs, it's just bounces and you try to get a dirty one. You have to have a good goalie and we have an unbelievable one in Freddy [Andersen]. He kept us in a lot of games. It's tough."
Andersen was, indeed, excellent for most of the series and shone again Sunday night. He stopped 34 shots but lost the goaltenders' duel to Capitals counterpart Braden Holtby, who made 37 saves. On the offensive side, Auston Matthews scored the Leafs goal, another feat in a remarkable rookie season, and played better in each game as the series went along.
"Give them credit, they battled hard," said Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin of the Leafs. "They're young but they're strong. They have a very good future. They will be successful in the next couple years."
Ovechkin exchanged a few words of with Matthews in the handshake line after the game. "I said, 'Great player, keep going and good luck in the future,' " Ovechkin said.
The Capitals outshone the Leafs for most of the third period, but Matthews brought the 19,740 fans at the Air Canada Centre alive when he scored the first goal of the game. Defenceman Morgan Rielly dumped the puck into the corner, where it hit the dasher board and took a strange bounce to the front of the net. Matthews was waiting there and roofed the shot at 7:45 for his fourth consecutive goal in the last four games of the series.
But the Capitals kept fighting and Johansson tied the score 1-1 five minutes later. His shot squirted under Andersen and just across the goal line.
Then the familiar tight-rope dance ensued until the series went to overtime for the fifth time in six games.
When the game started, the Maple Leafs made their best start of the series, taking the play to the Capitals from the opening faceoff. For the first several minutes they had the Capitals' defence on its heels trying to cope with their speed in getting on the fore-check.
The Leafs also dominated the faceoff circle, taking 67 per cent of the draws in the first two periods. Tyler Bozak won nine of his 10 faceoffs while Nazem Kadri was 10-for-13. This was what Leafs head coach Mike Babcock demanded after a poor effort in those areas in Game 5.
"The whole thing is the last game [the Capitals] dominated the faceoff circle and the neutral zone," Babcock said before the game. "You think about it, it's no big deal you lost a neutral-zone faceoff but then you spend a ton of time in your zone. If you want to have 35- or 30-second shifts, 10 seconds is off that faceoff loss and you're digging it out trying to get it back.
"I think that would be an area we need to bear down on for sure. They're either going to be on our [defence] or we're going to be on their D. There's not a whole lot in between. Both teams are trying to clog up that neutral zone so I think that's a priority for us for sure."
Outside of noted playoff hero Justin Williams, the Capitals did not have a lot going for them offensively, at least in the first period. In the second, the Caps' third line with Lars Eller and right winger Andre Burakovsky created some good chances.
But the Leafs were getting another good night out of Matthews and linemates William Nylander and Hyman. Nylander in particular was flying, and was in on a couple of scoring chances.
There were more good scoring chances in the second period but both goaltenders were superb. Holtby robbed Hyman early in the period from in front when the Matthews line had yet another good shift. Then good fortune shone on him several minutes later when Bozak's line was buzzing around. Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner drilled a shot from the left point but it hit the crossbar.
There was a small sideshow late in the second period when Kadri and Ovechkin renewed acquaintances. They sort of re-enacted their Game 5 clash when Ovechkin took a run at Kadri behind the play. They tangled together and Kadri climbed up Ovechkin's back and was tossed off like a sack of potatoes.