Leafs-Capitals Still A Puzzle

TORONTO (Apr. 14) — Well, yes, David hung in with Goliath on Thursday night.

In fact, the Toronto Maple Leafs nearly toppled the behemoth of the National Hockey League in their playoff opener. For the first time in exactly 16 years — dating to Apr. 13, 2001, at Ottawa — the Leafs went to overtime to begin the Stanley Cup tournament. Unlike that occasion, however, when Mats Sundin scored on a low slapshot from inside the point, the visitors were vanquished at 5:15 of the first extra period; Toronto native Tom Wilson doing the deed. Within moments, the visceral reaction to Game 1 north of the border was that the Leafs had comported admirably, thereby assuring a lengthy, opening–round struggle against the President’s Trophy winner. Such words were scrawled out by yours truly on Twitter and Facebook.

A good night’s sleep, however, left me wondering.

On reflection, the first–ever Stanley Cup encounter between the Capitals and Maple Leafs unfolded rather commonly. The home team — markedly favored in spite of a dubious playoff record — emerged from its dressing room squeezing Kevlar. So tight were the Capitals that they fell behind by a pair of goals before the midway mark of the opening frame. Watching on TV, it appeared as if the Verizon Center was empty; stunned–silent were the 18,506 Nervous Nellies on hand. The situation screamed for a Washington powerplay, which arrived, in duplicate, shortly after Jake Gardiner gave the Leafs their two–goal cushion (Brian Boyle went off for interference; Zach Hyman followed, 30 seconds later, for tripping). When Justin Williams scored with essentially a 5–on–3 advantage (two seconds after Boyle’s penalty expired), the NHL’s best team during the regular season calmed down and gradually, though unmistakably, assumed control.

  
IT LOOKED GOOD EARLY ON FOR THE MAPLE LEAFS, AS MITCH MARNER (WITH HIS FIRST PLAYOFF GOAL) AND JAKE GARDINER (HIS SECOND) TOOK ADVANTAGE OF THE NERVOUS HOME SIDE. CBC IMAGES

  
For most of the second and third periods, and virtually all of the brief extra session, it was Washington’s shooters against Toronto’s goalie… and Frederik Andersen worked coolly to keep his team deadlocked. The Caps outshot the Leafs 32–22 after the first period and generated numerous scoring chances. When an intercepted clearing–pass by Leafs defenseman Martin Marincin found Andersen on his knees — the prime scourge of “butterfly” goaltending — Wilson found room under the crossbar to bag the unassisted winner at 5:15 of OT. Had Freddy been on his skates at the time, the opening match would have continued.

As mentioned, the game evolved according to form — the favored home side fumbling about apprehensively at the beginning, only to establish poise and momentum after counting its first goal. So, we now ponder whether the Capitals have overcome their emotional skeleton by rebounding to win the first game, and will confidently dispatch the underdog Leafs with minimal hardship. Or, if the No. 2 wild card in the East — despite losing — has acquired enough resolve to make this a long, difficult quarrel.

Modern playoff history (in Toronto’s case, post–1967) tells us everything. And, nothing.

To wit: In 47 rounds of Stanley Cup toil since last winning the NHL title, the Leafs own a first–game record of 20–27. In the 26 series (prior to this) in which the Leafs have dropped the opening match, their record is 9–17. The last time the Leafs won a best–of–seven series in which they lost the opener was Round 1 in 2004, against Ottawa. The Senators kicked off that Eastern quarterfinal with a 4–2 triumph at Air Canada Centre.

Twelve nights later — same arena — they were eliminated in Game 7.

The last time (prior to Thursday) that Toronto lost the opening game in a best–of–seven on the road was in its last playoff round — the 2013 East quarterfinal against Boston (the Bruins prevailed, 4–1, at TD Garden).

We’ll spare Leaf zealots a reminder of how that series ended.

  
THE VERIZON CENTER ERUPTS AS TOM WILSON WINS GAME 1 AT 5:15 OF OVERTIME. CBC IMAGES

“It’s important for us to leave here with a split,” said Toronto coach Mike Babcock, for many obvious reasons, after the opener. Only twice, since 1967, have the Maple Leafs advanced after losing the first two games in a best–of–seven. Both ended on the road, in overtime: Lanny McDonald scoring at Nassau Coliseum against the New York Islanders in the 1978 Stanley Cup quarterfinals; Nikolai Borschevsky re–directing a shot at Joe Louis Arena against the Detroit Red Wings in the opening playoff round of 1993.

OVERTIME TRAGIC

The Leafs are in an overtime slump in the Stanley Cup playoffs, having lost five consecutive games:

Apr. 13, 2017 — at Washington (Tom Wilson).
May 13, 2013 — at Boston (Patrice Bergeron).
May 08, 2013 — vs. Boston (David Krejci).
May 04, 2004 — vs. Philadelphia (Jeremy Roenick).
Apr. 18, 2004 — at Ottawa (Mike Fisher).


THE FLYERS CELEBRATE JEREMY ROENICK’S OVERTIME ELIMINATION OF THE LEAFS: MAY 4, 2004.

Toronto’s last overtime victory in the playoffs occurred on Apr. 21, 2003 against Philadelphia at the Air Canada Centre. Travis Green scored at 10:51 of the second extra period to force a Game 7 in the opening–round series. Two nights later, Ed Belfour and the Leafs were routed, 6–1, at the Wells–Fargo Center.

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