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Maple Leafs suddenly find themselves with little margin for youthful errors

Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals skates against Leo Komarov of the Toronto Maple Leafs on April 17, 2017.

Claus Andersen/Getty Images

The playoff pressure pendulum that was stuck on the Washington Capitals for the past two games is now bearing down on the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Their skate-like-crazy, throw-pucks-at-the-net, see-what-happens style made the Leafs the talk of the NHL for the first week of the playoffs.

But now that the Capitals gave them a good lesson on playoff hockey in Game 4 – yes, the Leafs made it close near the end but that was only on the scoreboard – it is time to see if the roller-coaster team really is ready to stay ahead of the rebuilding plan and finish this upset, which looked so close until the Caps tied the first-round series with that 5-4 win on Wednesday.

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The best-of-seven series is now a best-of-three, with two games in Washington. The Leafs have more than a chance to win but that means once again bouncing back against the best regular-season team in the league. Game 5 may well decide this, since the winner gets a 3-2 lead, one game from ending it in what is a battle of the psyches as much as on the ice.

After hearing Leafs head coach Mike Babcock talk every day about how much pressure there is on the Capitals because they are the heavy favourites despite their mediocre playoff history, his counterpart with the Capitals threw a little back on Thursday.

"I think they're wrapping their heads around what we have to do," Barry Trotz said of the Maple Leafs. "As I said [Wednesday] we've just got to continue to build a 60-minute game.

"In the playoffs, you're going to have times where you have to weather their storm and times they're going to have to weather our storm. There's no 60-minute domination. That doesn't happen in the playoffs. I think we've figured out how we have to play and we've just got to do it for longer."

What the Leafs have to do now is figure out a way to stop making the glaring error. So far, they've been able to play their way out of them, but that did not happen in Game 4.

The reason the Maple Leafs are wildly entertaining is that they can buzz around the Capitals goal one minute and then watch the Caps wheel around the Toronto end the next because of some awful mistake. Everything is writ large with this team, the mistakes as well as the highlight-reel plays.

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Nothing speaks to that more than a couple of blunders against Capitals superstar Alexander Ovechkin, who is not dominating this series by any degree but has managed some moments thanks to the Leafs. Ovechkin was left all by himself on the left side of the ice on an early power play Wednesday night for an easy goal.

This must have driven Babcock into a rage. Ovechkin is a sporadic participant in this series. He has three goals, but two of them were gifts from the Leafs.

During a Game 2 power play last week, Ovechkin was Zach Hyman's man. Now, anyone who has watched more than three Capitals games knows Ovechkin plays the left point on the power play. Then everyone else works to get him an open shot from the top of the faceoff circle, where Ovechkin can launch his customary bombs.

Hyman must have been hiding in the washroom playing poker with a couple of the other kids from the back of the class when Babcock taught that particular lesson because he was nowhere in sight when Ovechkin ripped a shot that tied the score and put some life into the Capitals.

Connor Brown was probably in that poker game, too, along with a couple of others on the penalty-killing unit. Four minutes and 34 seconds into the first period Thursday night, Brown and company left the entire left side of the ice open for another Ovechkin rocket that made it 2-0 Washington. Brown was asked what happened.

"Yeah, he was by himself," Brown said. "We had the puck and so when there is a loose puck we're trying to create as much pressure as possible or outnumber them in that wall and we've got to get our clears down. When they get it back it's tough to be in our coverage."

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Sorry, no English translation was provided. But a rough guess is, "We all took off to chase the puck on the right side. We didn't get it. Ovie did. That's when I knew I didn't want to go back to our bench."

You can bet Babcock went over the Ovechkin lesson again Thursday morning. You can also bet no one sneaked out for a smoke in the boys' room. Leafs defenceman Connor Carrick admitted as much when he was asked about the need to worry more about Ovechkin.

"It's our job to play at our pace, with our execution, in our system, what's made us successful all season long and against Washington, be aware of our pitfalls and stay away from them and manage the game," he said. "We saw some clips [Thursday] morning in our meeting – is this what the Maple Leafs are doing when we're playing our best? No."

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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