Maple Leafs enjoying underdog role against Capitals

Thursday April 13th, 2017

It can be both a terrifying and liberating feeling: that of having absolutely nothing to lose.

When you walk around the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing rooms over the last few days, either at the Air Canada Centre or their practice facility in nearby Etobicoke, you're struck by the remarkably loose atmosphere and state of mind. Save for the odd losing streak here and there, this has been the case throughout the season for this young Leafs team. And as they enter their first playoff series as part of a quickly accelerated rebuild, the first playoff series for as many as 11 players, nothing has changed. Even faced with the daunting prospect of having to play the President's Trophy-winning Washington Capitals, the consensus pick as Stanley Cup favorites, the Leafs are staying upbeat and savoring the moment that is their first playoff experience.

"These playoff years don't come around every year," said defenseman Morgan Rielly. "So when they do, you want to make the most of it." 

Don't think for a second however that the Leafs are simply happy to be invited to the dance. Even though pundits are giving them little chance to upset the Capitals, there is the belief inside the locker room that they can perhaps surprise some people.

"We just want to go out and try and assert our game early in the series, two things that we do well," said defenseman Connor Carrick. "And put some doubt in any team we play that we can steal one from them."

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It's the same attitude that carried them through the regular season, one that surprised the hockey world after the Leafs finished dead last in the NHL last season and experienced a significant, 26-point improvement.

"When we've come this far, we're not going to be satisfied with anything but trying to move on and trying to win games," said forward James van Riemsdyk, who has 46 games of playoff experience to his name. "So we're not just happy to be here. We want to make our mark and play as well as we can."

That would mean continuing as one of the NHL's highest-scoring teams with one of the league's best power plays. So much of who this Leafs team is off the ice translates into how it plays on it: fast, loose and always with a smile on their face.

Nineteen-year old Calder trophy possibility Mitch Marner, born in the greater Toronto area, thinks his first playoff experience will mean "A lot of excitement, real fun" and adds that he thinks the whole city is behind them.

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And that may be. This will be the Leafs' first playoff appearance since 2013 and their first after a full, 82-game regular season since 2004. 

But perhaps because of those facts, many in the hockey world are not behind the Leafs. This first round series is something of a David vs. Goliath matchup. The Capitals scored more goals than the Leafs, have a much more stable blue line (especially after defenseman Nikita Zaitsev, who was second among position players in average time on ice this season, was ruled out of game one with an upper body injury), have a Vezina Trophy-winning goalie between the pipes and have the kind of playoff experience many on the Leafs could only dream of having.

The Leafs are being cast as underdogs, and they're happy to have that role. After all, it's one they've largely had all season.

"It's a big year for [the Capitals]," said Carrick with a knowing grin. "A lot on the line."

There is an inherent pressure on the Capitals that players like Carrick and the entire Leafs roster will look to, ahem, capitalize on. Being in an underdog role allows you to play without fear or restrictions, something the Leafs have done all season.

"I think we are underdogs," said Leafs head coach Mike Babcock. "Someone texted me this last night: ESPN, on their panel of experts, everyone had us missing the playoffs. We're in the playoffs, so who cares? I've been the underdog lots and won. I've been the President's Trophy winner and lost in the first round – fifth best record of all time with 58 wins, and lost in the first round to Edmonton. When I coached in Anaheim, we beat the Detroit Red Wings. We swept them in the first round. I think that was in '03, and they had just won the Cup. So go there and play, and play right, and we'll see what happens.

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"That's the best thing about hockey, the competitiveness," added Marner, who admits he's looking forward to playing a skilled team like the Capitals.

Others, like Carrick, are not fretting too much about how much talent the Capitals have. After the final regular season game last Sunday, Carrick expressed serious desire to get right back out on the ice as soon as possible. He's not overplaying the talent on the Capitals in his head.

"It's inertia. It makes them like everybody else," he said.

If the pundits are to be believed, the experience in the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs will be a short one for the Leafs. But that doesn't mean they're not going to enjoy it while it lasts.

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