Just as they did for most of the season, the rebuilt version of the Toronto Maple Leafs figuratively thumbed their noses at the doubters and came out flying for their NHL playoff debut.
There was no sign of nerves from the start on Thursday night and for almost two periods and then parts of a third, the young Leafs had the Washington Capitals, the NHL’s best team in the regular season but one with a shaky playoff past, nervous and on the ropes.
But it wasn’t quite good enough. The Washington Capitals fought back from a two-goal disadvantage to subdue a determined group of Leafs with a 3-2 overtime win in the first game of their Eastern Conference first-round series. Tom Wilson won the game with a long shot that eluded Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen, who deserved better, at 5:15 of the first overtime period. It was Wilson’s first career playoff goal.
It was a long shot that seemed to catch Andersen off-guard and drifted into the top corner. Yes, it was a whiff but without Andersen’s excellence in the previous 65 minutes and change, the Leafs would not have made it that far. He stopped 41 shots, while his counterpart with the Capitals, Braden Holtby, made 35 saves.
“I thought [Andersen] was really good, and then he’d probably like to have that [winning goal] back,” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said. “But he gave us an opportunity, so I don’t think you can argue with that.”
Other than giving up a five-on-three power play, which led to the Capitals’ first goal of the game after the Leafs had taken a 2-0 lead, Babcock was satisfied with how his team responded to his days of urging that they were good enough to compete in the playoffs.
“A confidence-builder, for sure,” he said. “I liked our game. I didn’t like that we wouldn’t shoot the puck. We had so many opportunities to shoot and we wouldn’t, we wanted to pass.
“I thought Wilson did a good job of doing that, you just throw it on net. That’s playoff hockey. Things bounce to somebody and it goes in. I didn’t think we did a good job of that. I liked a lot of things about our game.”
Babcock spent the days leading up to Thursday’s game hammering away at the Capitals’ reputation for regular-season greatness and playoff flops. The Caps made the playoffs every year but one from 2008 through 2016, and they never advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs.
On Thursday night, what the Leafs lacked in experience they made up in effort, as Toronto went at Washington hard from the opening faceoff. It was an uncharacteristic display of hard-hitting, hard-checking hockey from the Leafs interlaced with their speed and skill.
Just 1 minute 35 seconds into the game, the Leafs’ aggressiveness paid off. Holtby misplayed a shot by James van Riemsdyk and allowed the puck to bounce around, under him and in front of the net. Mitch Marner wasted no time sliding the puck in the open side of the net for his first playoff goal in his first playoff game.
Marner and the Leafs’ other two star rookies, Auston Matthews and William Nylander, all played well in their playoff debuts.
“Yeah, it was a lot of fun,” Marner said. “The building had a lot of excitement in it. I think it affects both sides of the bench, gets everyone kind of going. It’s definitely an exciting atmosphere and fun to play in.”
The fans grew quieter after Marner’s goal and moreso when Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner scored to put them up 2-0 at 9:44.
“Yeah, they were loud all game,” Marner said. “I think their fans did a great job of that. Obviously that’s what we want to do, we want to try and quiet them right away and make sure we’re playing hard all game. I think we did a great job of that all night.”
The Caps again were guilty of sloppy play in their own end on Gardiner’s goal. They coughed up the puck twice in about five seconds with the second giveaway by defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk. The puck wound up at the point and Gardiner fired it at the net. It bounced off Washington forward T.J. Oshie and into the net.
However, the goal was waved off by the referees, who ruled Leafs centre Nazem Kadri interfered with Holtby as the shot came in. But Babcock used his challenge and after a look at the replays the referee reversed his call and the Leafs had a stunning 2-0 lead.
Shattenkirk admitted nerves played a role in the Capitals’ difficulties.
“There is always some nervousness, I think, when you come into games like this. It’s only human,” he said. “I think just the problem we had, and I was a victim of it, too, was just not moving your feet, not skating through it.
“[The Leafs] came out fast. You have to give them credit and really they were just doing a good job of just throwing pucks to the net. No matter where they were coming from, where they were shooting, they were just getting pucks in to [Holtby] and crashing on it and trying to get second and third chances. We didn’t do a good job of taking that away. I was very happy with the way we bounced back. We were very resilient, obviously. We just took a deep breath after that and regrouped.”
The Capitals got one back in the first period at 12:24 on a power play with Williams’ first of two goals to finish the first period down 2-1. He also scored the tying goal late in the second period.
Holtby said Williams did more than just score two big goals to get the Capitals back in the game. He also talked the team off the ledge.
“In between periods it was basically Justin just kind of calmed everyone down, said, ‘Relax, we’re not going to win every period,’ ” Holtby said. “That’s what leaders do. He got us a big couple goals and fought hard all game.”
The Capitals came at the Leafs in waves in the third period, with the crowd roaring, but Andersen was rock solid, as he had been for the entire game. His best save came with 3:29 to play in the third when he robbed Caps winger Marcus Johansson with a glove save for the second time to keep the Leafs alive for overtime.
Andersen topped that save early in overtime when he stopped the puck and then flung his pad up to get the rebound. Some of the Capitals were on their way over the boards to celebrate. They got the chance a minute later when Wilson scored the winner.
There were questions about the Leafs defence with Nikita Zaitsev out with an undisclosed injury and little-used Martin Marincin filling the vacancy. But all of the Leafs went at the Capitals with vigour. Before the series all of the talk was about the Capitals not giving the Leafs any room to play but they were all over the hosts for most of the first period and it paid off.
Behind all of the work of the forwards and defence was an excellent Andersen. He quickly settled any doubts about the two knocks on the head he suffered in the last two weeks of the regular season by coolly making a few glove saves in the opening minutes and got better from there.Report Typo/Error