It’s a common trope in coming-of-age movies.
The smaller guy who’s been bullied for a while finally has to face the big bully in front of the whole school, gets in the first shot, and astounds. The punch the smaller guy packs is more than anyone expected. It staggers the bully. The crowd gasps.
Then the bully, nose bloodied, comes in again and beats the crap out of the small guy anyway. But everyone saw something there, in that first punch. Things are changing. The power dynamic in the school is shifting.
That very well could be what happened in the first two games of this Maple Leafs/Capitals series.
The Caps are the Presidents’ Trophy winners. Again. Second year in a row. Third time since 2009. This is a great team. And the Maple Leafs, less than a year removed from winning the damn draft lottery and less than a week removed from barely squeezing into the playoffs, are giving them all they can handle.
Two overtime games. One the Caps were a bit lucky to win. The other the Leafs took, on the road.
Now, a quick look under the hood and you see that the Leafs are kinda scraping by in these games. They’re getting outshot. They’re not drawing as many penalties. They’re giving up more scoring chances. They’re getting electrifying goaltending. But in a short series, sometimes that’s all you need. And certainly, they’ve made a series that looked like a walkover (and frankly, could still end up being one) a lot more interesting than anyone had any right to expect.
After the double-overtime loss on Saturday night, Capitals players more or less to a man told the assembled media that they expected a more difficult series than outside observers did. You can see why. These Leafs are talented, they’re well-coached, they’re going to be riding a high given that it’s so many of these players’ first time in the playoffs. And because hockey games are already basically coin flips even before you get to overtime, the fact that this series is shifting to Toronto tied at one apiece was always a reasonable scenario.
But the terrifying thing, if you’re anyone outside the greater Toronto area, is how much of this is being carried by Toronto’s U-24 players. Willy Nylander and OT hero Kasperi Kapanen is 20. Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews are still teenagers. Morgan Rielly, averaging 32 damn minutes a night on the back end, is 23. Jake Gardiner is the greybeard of the group at 26. Even Freddy Andersen, who seems like he’s been around the league forever, is 27. Not to draw too many conclusions from eight-ish periods of hockey, but it’s been this way all year, so nothing’s really different from what it was in, say, November.
The result of the next few games are almost immaterial. Obviously it would be amazing if Toronto pushed this to seven games, or even won the series. It’s not likely, but it could theoretically happen. The fact is that even if they get past the Caps, the deck is so stacked against them trying to come out of the Metro side of the bracket that their actual ability to be meaningfully competitive is basically nil.
But that’s only for now.
If this team can vaguely keep up with the Caps —in terms of 5-on-5 play — over the course of a whole series, given that Matt Hunwick and Martin Marincin are eating huge minutes every night, that’s really a credit to high-end their high-end young players are, and how good of a job Mike Babcock has done installing a workable system that plays to everyone’s strengths. And, obviously, to Andersen in net.
Not that anyone would ever admit it, but this playoff appearance for the Leafs is one of those “happy to be there” things. Clearly they’re showing they belong, but it’s fair to say they’re a bit ahead of schedule. That’s bad news for the rest of the league, because if players keep improving until they’re 25 or 26, you really have to wonder what this team looks like next postseason, or three years from now.
This team still has some obvious holes, for now. The defensive depth is basically non-existent, and they don’t really have the kind of true top-end guy that come standard with all great teams of this era (people keep trying to connect them to names like Doughty and Shattenkirk; that’d provide instant credibility, but let’s be more realistic). The forward depth issues are more easily addressed, but right now they’re also fairly obvious; that top-six looks great, the bottom-six not so much.
Moreover, it would be a bit silly to expect that every young guy on the Leafs takes a step forward next season. Yeah, Matthews scored 40 as a 19-year-old. Yeah Nylander and Marner both cleared 60 points as rookies. Yeah, Rielly keeps getting better. But the kinds of performances they’re turning in despite their ages aren’t easy for even the best players to post year after year. Of course, even if you get 50-plus points and 30 goals from players their ages, you’re ahead of the game, but so much of the Leafs’ success turned on their production alone that to not plan for a lateral or even small backward step would be worrisome.
The good news is this: The core of this team is young and incredibly elite. The coach is the best in the world. The management side is probably among the smartest in the league, even if it has the same tendency toward old-school foibles everyone else does.
And if they’re acquitting themselves well against the team that amassed 238 points over the past 164 regular-season games (I mean, come on!) now, with so many young contributors, a little maturation is going to push this team to the top of the league in a hurry.
How long before they have a Presidents’ Trophy of their own? How long before they’re the ones getting the “Leafs in a walk” predictions in the first round? How long before they win a Stanley Cup?
Less than a year after a 30th-place finish, the future looks almost unbelievably bright. None but the most obnoxiously optimistic Leafs homer would have expected the turnaround to be this strong, this quick.
But they’re already punching harder than expected. They gave the best team in the league over the past two years an eye-widening surprise. Even if — when — they eventually stumble, get eliminated, and spend the summer retooling, every other team in the East has to understand what this team is going to do to them in the near future, and plan accordingly.
Again, not to draw too many conclusions from 140-plus minutes of hockey, but you can see what this team is becoming. And it should fill them with a great, inescapable terror.
Soon these Leafs will be a juggernaut, and no one’s gonna be laughing then.
What We Learned
Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks keep saying, “Please, beat us at home. Come on.” And the Flames keep saying, “We’d prefer to take dumbass late penalties and put guys like Troy Brouwer and Lance Bouma out there in important late-game situations, but thanks anyway.”
Arizona Coyotes: This is a nice little signing from the Coyotes but boy, there goes that Minnesota-Duluth team that was one of the best in college hockey this year.
Calgary Flames: Yeah the Flames kinda got screwed in Game 2. And they’ve been the better team on the balance of the series. But you take too many penalties and a team with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry is gonna make you pay. Oh well.
Columbus Blue Jackets: This Tortorella quote nicely encapsulates why he’s not a good coach and never learned a damn thing despite all the media fawning this year: “I talked to our guys, during when we had that 16-game winning streak. We were filling the net. We forgot about who we were and what our foundation is, and that’s a team that’s going to bang and have some grind to its game.” He’s descended into self-parody.
Edmonton Oilers: This kid, man. He makes the amazing look so mundane.
Florida Panthers: The Panthers should hire Darryl Sutter. I’m gonna keep saying this until it happens. I don’t care how long it takes.
Los Angeles Kings: Is Rob Blake the right guy to fix the Kings? Well, he used to be a good hockey player himself and that seems to be the only qualification you need in this league, so yes. Definitely he’s the guy. Unless he isn’t. But we won’t know for sure until like five years from now.
Ottawa Senators: What a moment for Clarke MacArthur. And what a damn shot, too.
San Jose Sharks: Just a thought: If you’re really worried about Logan Couture’s face — which is apparently causing him great pain all the time — maybe don’t play him. Thank you Pete DeBoer for sayin’ what needed to be said.
St. Louis Blues: Yes well we can all say for sure that we definitely predicted Jake Allen being the Conn Smythe frontrunner through the first two games of the playoffs.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Tampa would be facing a cap overage if Yzerman hadn’t made all those deadline trades. Instead, no problems at all. Dude knows what he’s doing.
Toronto Maple Leafs: We also all saw Freddie Andersen being better than Braden Holtby coming. For sure.
Vegas Golden Knights: Yeah I don’t get this hire.
Play of the Weekend
This is the kind of nice reminder that even guys who spend their entire NHL careers on the fourth line were often super-creative and productive players in college. One time I saw Brian Boyle score all four goals for Boston College in a 4-3 overtime win. What a dang pass.
Gold Star Award
Freddie Andersen you are too pure for this world!
Minus of the Weekend
The timing of this truly bad take couldn’t be worse. “A kinder, gentler Torts,” less than 24 hours after Calvert went out and tried to send a message as his team was getting humilated? That’s classic Torts garbage.
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year
User “Myers888” forgot about the salary cap.
Kings need to get younger and cheaper:
6th OA 2017
One of the most popular movies of all time, sir! What were you thinking?
(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)