It’s April 19, 2017. The Leafs are coming off winning arguably their biggest game in 13 years. After a late goal from Kasperi Kapanen tied the game at 3, Connor Brown tallied the winner shortly thereafter off a point shot from Jake Gardiner and Auston Matthews sealed it with an empty-netter, the Leafs took down the Penguins 5–3 to clinch their first playoff spot in an 82-game season since 2004.
The only thing that is left to be decided is who the Leafs will play. By registering one point in their season finale against Columbus, they avoid the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals, and instead play the Ottawa Senators, who, while a great team, give the Leafs a much better chance at pulling out a series victory. Fans, including yours truly, are desperately hoping for this match-up.
The game started out well for the Leafs, After a scoreless opening frame, they went up 1–0 early in the second, and doubled their lead minutes later thanks to a pair of markers from James van Riemsdyk. However, the Jackets cut the lead to one on a goal by Matt Calvert, and before the second period was out, tied the game at 2 when Josh Anderson came down the right wing and snapped one past Freddy Andersen. They then took the lead in the third when Calvert set up Cam Atkinson who skated down the slot and fired one by Andersen and made it 3–2 CBJ. Despite a late push by the Buds, they couldn’t solve Jonas Korpisalo and fell by a 3–2 count, finishing the season with 95 points, good enough for the 2nd wildcard spot.
The Capitals, it was.
Many hockey experts, and fans, alike, considered this to be a gross mismatch fuelled by young inexperience on one side, and veteran skill and savvy on the other. Those who hypothesized anything short of a Capitals’ sweep were largely considered delusional. I, myself, predicted the Leafs would get driven into the ground, and be lucky to compete in a game, let alone win one.
Through three games with the NHL’s créme de la créme, though, the Leafs have proven almost everyone wrong in the most unexpected of ways, and are in a better position ahead of game four than could have been dreamed of.
The Leafs-Capitals series may be the best series in the entire postseason thus far, with three overtime games and two wins by a Leafs team that was one of the strongest playoff underdogs in years. Had anyone said prior to the series, that this matchup would provide the best entertainment value of the playoffs, they likely would have been sent to a mental institution. But it has.
A matchup with the Caps certainly isn’t what the Leafs were hoping for going into the final game of the season, but it’s turned into a blessing in disguise for this team. It’s easy to say this considering they’re up in the series when they weren’t expected to win a game, but it is, and here’s why.
First off, it gives the team an even bigger sense of what it’s like to play in the playoffs. The Leafs playoff inexperience (at least at the NHL level) was the number one justification for their presumably-inevitable downfall coming into the series. A playoff matchup against Ottawa definitely would have given them a great sense of the animal that is playoff hockey, but the experience that has come, and will come, with this matchup, regardless of the result, is far greater. They are playing the best of the best, the NHL’s top team. And so far they are playing with — as opposed to against––the Washington Capitals. This series has expedited the growth of the Toronto Maple Leafs tremendously, and would have regardless of the result. Said result, at least thus far, has shown the disparity between these two hockey teams is much thinner than many thought.
Secondly, the experience they’ve gained this during this playoff run is going to carry forward into next year and beyond. Obviously that would be the case regardless of who they played, but the amount of experience––and knowledge––they have gained is invaluable going forward. They are so much more equipped now to handle playoff pressure in the future. They have shown they can compete with the Capitals with no pressure, so now when the pressure is on next year and in the coming years and expectations are higher, they’ll be able to channel that more effectively because of this experience. This series has taught them how to perform at a high level in the playoffs, and while the pressure may be less than it would have been had they played Ottawa or Boston, the opponent is better. So now, when they improve even more next year (all projections suggest they will) and the pressure mounts, they will handle it better having played an upper-echelon team. They know what they need to do to win playoff games now, and the level you need to compete at in order to win games, all something this experience (more so than one against another club) has given them. Their ability to play right alongside Washington will help them in handling the pressure next year and further down the road, because they know the level of intensity it takes to play with the best of the best.
And finally, the third reason this series is a better one for the Leafs than would have been one against the Sens (or anyone else) is this: this series is making a statement to the entire National Hockey League and hockey fans everywhere. The way this Leafs team has played through the first three games is, frankly, remarkable. And it was unimaginable just six days ago prior to game one. The Leafs have shown the league that they are a good hockey team. I, for the longest time, considered the Leafs to be talented, but not good. That was because of a defence corps that was in the bottom third of the league, specifically their third pair of Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak. I no longer think they are not a good hockey team. In the playoffs more than any other time during the year, you need your depth guys to show up and contribute. The Leafs depth guys have done just that. The fourth line of Boyle, Martin and Kapanen have been excellent, save for game one, and contributed to some of the biggest goals of the series, and Hunwick and Polak (before he was injured) and now Martin Marincin), have been steady on the blue line. That’s all you need, and so far, that’s what the Leafs have gotten.
This is one of the top five teams in the East in the New Year, and this series has illustrated this fact. Now imagine how good they’ll be next year and the year after.