The playoff battle scars earned by defenseman Morgan Rielly were right out there in the open for all to see after Game 4. So were the warts in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ game, but we continue to learn more and more about this group of youngsters, most of it surprisingly good.
It’s clear after four one-goal games in this No. 1 vs. No. 8 matchup in the Eastern Conference that the Maple Leafs are not at all content to play up to the narrative of the plucky underdog. Part of that has come from their own play, part of it has been handed to them by the Washington Capitals, who have done surprisingly little to prove they are actually a championship-caliber team. Even after their 5-4 loss in Game 4 to tie the series at two games each, there is no indication yet that the Capitals are going to pull away from the Leafs. It may still happen, but every time the Capitals have made this series look like a fait accompli, the Leafs have planted an enormous seed of doubt.
And so it is going into Game 5 Friday night in Washington. The Leafs did not handle being in the driver’s seat particularly well, but that doesn’t mean they don’t think they belong there. Rielly was asked whether the team was finding any solace in the fact that it was hanging with the Capitals after four games in the series and his response was telling.
“We don’t think we’re hanging with them,” Rielly said. “We want to be in the driver’s seat. I don’t think that they should be putting us away. I think we feel like we can come out and control the game. It’s not about hanging on and trying to squeak one out. It’s about controlling the play and being in the driver’s seat and going out there and winning a game.”
Each time this team has faced a significant test this season, it has proved it is a much better team than anyone thought they would be. Their young players are refusing to bow to the high and mighty Capitals and, in fact, may have gotten into a little trouble in Game 4 because they were suffering from a case of overconfidence. They are not perfect. This team is an adventure in its own zone at times. It has displayed a penchant for long bouts of bad play and has had trouble closing games out. But it has also displayed an accelerated ability to do some very, very good things.
And yes, the lessons are being learned. Mitch Marner, who created so much time and space for himself with his sublime skill level during the season, is finding that the playoffs are an entirely different game and the looks that were there in January and February are not there in April. They’re learning, too, that there is no let-up in the playoffs and no luxury of giving the opponent any life. It was telling that Leafs coach Mike Babcock said that in Game 4, “we weren’t scared enough of them.” Who would have thought that would be the case when this series began?
“I think everybody is getting a lesson on our team,” Babcock said. “We’ve got a lot of veteran guys that just played their eighth playoff game. We’re all getting lessons. Each and every year – this is a crucial game today, you could make it a best-of-three or you could be in the driver’s seat. What you learn over time by being in these is you never want to let the other team get any momentum. We’ve done that so now we’ve got to dig in and find a way. I think everyone is finding out there’s not a lot of space and not a lot of room and to be a good player in the league, you've got to be ultra-competitive and you’ve got to do it every day.”
Still, though, you’d have to think that if someone told the Leafs prior to this series that going into Game 5 they’d be tied 2-2 with the Capitals and have played four one-goal games, they would have gladly taken it. But it’s interesting to see how the narrative has shifted. This group of players was not content to chalk Game 4 up to them playing against a superior, dangerous team. They looked at is as a game they gave away and an opportunity they missed. This team should be happy just to be here. But it clearly is not. The Maple Leafs may not ultimately win this series, but the experience they’re gaining is going to pay off handsomely.
“We still believe we can win,” said Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen. “It’s a best-of-three now and that’s our focus going into the next game.”