Off the ice, perhaps the biggest priority to Brendan Shanahan and the top brass at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has been, to put it simply, to buck a generation-long trend of fan bleed out. For years, you’d walk into rinks in the Greater Toronto Area, into restaurants, or just wander around town, and there was still no shortage of hockey gear on the heads and torsos of our youth.
It just didn’t have the Leafs emblem. It was hard to blame them, either; the team, for the better part of the past decade and a half, was dreadful and could only give you bursts of excitement for stretches of days at best. It became increasingly common to find that your typical Toronto hockey child was more interested in the Blackhawks, Penguins, Kings, Canadiens, Red Wings, or the Washington Capitals.
In a lighter sense, my teenage years were spent in the latter boat. I’m a “root for the city of Toronto, no matter what” guy, so the Leafs were always the team that got the bulk of my attention, but there wasn’t any attention to give them come April. So, for almost the entire past decade and a half, I’ve started the postseason with the same sentence rattled off my tongue.
“I’m really hoping for a Capitals/Canucks final.”
This year, a lot of that goes away, for myself and for the younger base who were at much higher risk to lose the attention span of. Toronto, a team who have exceeded the expectations of everyone (other than those really, really paying attention) by jumping from 30th to an X this season, will take on perhaps the most bandwagoned without reward team of the bunch. Maybe that’s what made them so endearing; they’re a team that fill you with excitement (let’s not talk about the Hunter and Oates years), but routinely gave a familiar form of disappointment, not even getting to the Conference Finals in any of their “This is the year, for real this time” pushes.
So crossing slightly biased fingers for another quick demise feels a little weird. If they do advance over Toronto, I’ll no doubt be pulling the Ovechkin jersey out of the closet. In fact, I expect this to be the likely outcome; like many on this site, I had the Caps in six games. Simply put, this is the best front-to-back team they’ve put out in the past decade. They’ve got an elite offence, a mostly top-end defence, and one of the best goaltenders in the game in Braden Holtby. They’re not as run and gun as they used to be, but they can be overwhelming at a finger snap. Overwhelming is a scary thought when you consider the Leafs’ decent but not stellar defensive core and that they’ll start the postseason without Nikita Zaitsev’s services.
But that doesn’t mean this series should be written off before it starts.
The Caps have a great team, but percentages have been on their side throughout the year. A lot of that is Holtby stopping pucks like the (Holt)beast he is, putting together his third consecutive > 0.920 SV%, > 60 GP season, but the fact that every Capitals player that’s played 1000 minutes has an on-ice shooting percentage above 8.75% at even strength (everyone over 1200 minutes > 9.5% in all situations), is pretty stunning. Maybe they’re all just snipers this year, like TJ “suddenly doubling his career high in shooting percentage” Oshie. Maybe they’re all shooting from the right spots, despite their rankings in expected goals and scoring chances being a few spots below where they are in attempts and actual shots.
Or maybe they’re due for a dip at some point, which will still make them very good, but not as invincible. Could that happen now, against a fast team that lives and dies around high-danger areas, offensively and defensively? There’s no way to predict it, but it’s possible.
It’s not like the Season Series says that they can’t keep up. Toronto was 1-1-1 against the Caps this year; an edge of a standings point that came as a result of a third-period collapse in the second game, back when that was an issue for the team. The total goal differential was 12-9 in that stretch, and the total shots were just a dozen apart.
But Toronto has fixed some of the holes that the Caps have exposed in them throughout the year. Don’t let the game two weeks ago make you believe that the tone is completely set; the Caps are better, but not “unclimbable mountain” better.
A lot is being made of the psychological factor in this series as well. I don’t know how much I buy into there being a distinct net income. The Leafs have a lot of kids who haven’t been there before, but they’ve all been big-game players on other stages. They’ve got a bunch of rookies, but they’ll be dressing three Stanley Cup Finalists and have a fourth in the practice squad. The Caps have their “choker” reputation but are also full of players who have shown up to play before, be it with other teams or being the exceptions to the rule when the [insert year] Washington team went cold.
Do the Caps have a firmer grasp on what’s going on? Yes. Do they have the opportunity to create momentum on home ice? Yes. But they have much more pressure on their own hands in this series as Presidents Trophy winners than the Leafs do as a feel-good story, and “what have I previously done in this situation” flies out the window the second the puck is on your stick and you have to make a micro-second decision.
The reality of this series is simple. It’s the safe bet to think that the Capitals will come away as victors; they’re dominant at every level, and while the Leafs are on their way to building a team that will be among, if not the favourites to win the Stanley Cup for the next several years, Washington is the team to beat right now.
But the Leafs are still a very good team. We’ve seen what they can do when they’re focused and a bit lucky throughout the year. Much like last year’s team wasn’t your average last place team, this isn’t your average wildcard team; they’re one that has developed exponentially over the past few months, one that likely got burned by some rough luck in one-goal games to keep their points low (no shootouts in the playoffs!), and one that always leaves teams going “we need to adjust for next time”, even when they defeat them. Don’t doubt for a second that this series won’t be another learning experience for the group, and it could possibly come fast enough on the fly to execute the lessons by the end of it.
We know what they’re capable of. We also know that the playoffs are a fickle, luck driven beast where the best team has the best chance at winning, but not insurmountably so. Every year, players go hot or cold, goalies go hot or cold, teams get or don’t get bounces, and an entire season’s effort goes into an entirely different direction, ripping reality from the hands of the predictable. It’s a little crazy to expect the Leafs to win this series, but it’s not insane to think that they could.
Believe me, I’ve been down this road with these mostly the same Washington Capitals enough times to know.