TORONTO (Apr. 24) — It was only six days ago that the lead sports columnist at the Washington Post referred to the city’s National Hockey League players as “choking dogs”. That would be Thomas Boswell, who wrote that the Capitals — trailing the series to the Maple Leafs, 2–1 — had to win “one, stinking, miserable” game at the Air Canada Centre. Well, as it turns out, the Capitals won two “stinking” games on Bay St. and left the locals in misery with a Sunday–night advancement to Round 2 of the Stanley Cup tournament.
Though it will come as little consolation to Toronto hockey fans, this series was not lost by the Maple Leafs. Instead, the Presidents’ Trophy winner — after what had to be hours of misgiving — rose up and grabbed the Eastern Conference quarterfinal. Snatched it clean. Braden Holtby rediscovered his Vezina Trophy form in the final three games and the Capitals shook the choker’s label emphatically by rebounding from Auston Matthews’ fluky goal that provided the Leafs a 1–0 edge at 7:45 of Sunday’s third period. Even a year ago, Washington would likely have wilted and lost by more than one length. This team, superbly coached by Barry Trotz, suffered no lull in momentum and knotted the match just more than five minutes later. Marcus Johansson then poked a rebound past Frederik Andersen at 6:31 of overtime for his second tally of the night to finish the series and send the Capitals up against Pittsburgh in the Conference semifinals.
MARCUS JOHANSSON POKES THE OVERTIME SERIES WINNER PAST FREDERIK ANDERSEN AND IS THEN SWARMED UPON BY HIS WASHINGTON TEAMMATES IN THE CORNER. SPORTSNET IMAGES
So, disappointed though you may be as a Leafs fan, tip your hat to the bad guys.
There was nothing chancy about Washington’s six–game triumph, nor will Toronto hockey zealots need to wring their palms over a blown opportunity — as in 2013 against Boston. The Leafs will feel no shame in losing to the best team from the regular season, irrespective of prior playoff bugaboos, and will undoubtedly benefit from the experience of staying with the No. 1 club nearly stride for stride. The wisdom and maturity gained by all of the young Leafs in playing five overtime matches during their first Stanley Cup march should be invaluable in years to follow — providing the club continues to develop on the ice. There is no–such guarantee in the NHL; fans of the Blue and White should not go into the summer taking for granted what their team accomplished this season: improving by 26 points in the standings and extending the Capitals farther than most believed possible. The Leafs will no longer sneak up on the opposition. Next season will be more of a grind. If the club moves forward at close to the same pace, it will meet the challenge.
AUSTON MATTHEWS AND ALEX OVECHKIN EMBRACE AFTER THE SERIES. SPORTSNET IMAGE
There should be very little soul–searching by the Toronto players.
Perhaps only Andersen may have a moment or two of regret for his substandard performance in Game 4. He bounced back spectacularly in the final two encounters and was almost solely responsible for Sunday night’s finale reaching extra time. Should there be a “what if” in this series, it involves that gruesome first period at the ACC on Wednesday… and the soft third–period goal by T.J. Oshie that stood as the Game 4 winner. Had Andersen been more on the ball, perhaps the Leafs would have grabbed a 3–1 lead in the series. And, I contend they played too well, from start to finish, to cough up such an advantage.
For now, the Leafs and their fans can bask in the best season, by far, since the Pat Quinn era.
And, who really expected that when training camp opened last September?