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Even in playoff ouster, the Maple Leafs gave Toronto a reason to believe again

The upstart Toronto Maple Leafs were disappointed by their first-round loss to the Washington Capitals, but even in defeat, they sent a message to the rest of the league: We're coming.

TORONTO—In the two children’s books he’s authored, Toronto Maple Leafs forward Zach Hyman has always wanted to share a lesson. For the kids that read his books, Hyman wants them to remember to believe in themselves.

Sitting in his dressing room stall after being eliminated from playoff contention with 2-1 overtime loss in Game 6 of the Leafs’ first-round series to the Washington Capitals, the disappointment was palpable in Hyman. Nevertheless, he believed in the lessons learned from the surprising season.

“It’d be great if we could go from last to first but it doesn’t happen like that,” said Hyman, the first sprouts of a playoff beard just beginning to show. “We made a huge improvement this year. Every loss you learn from. Every series you learn from. It was great for us young guys to get in a series like that where every game is a one goal game.”

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So the Capitals, the Presidents' Trophy winners, moved on. But that’s hardly the story here. The Leafs, young and fun, turned heads and pushed their season and this series to places few thought it would go. It’s easy to forget that Toronto was the last place team in the NHL last season. And through the regular season, filled with enough young talent and character—seriously, Hyman, as one of the team’s 10 rookies, writes children’s books—the team put the league on notice: with its bountiful speed and offensive weapons, they weren’t just a team for the future but a squad to watch now. Five of the six games in this series went to overtime. The Leafs may have lost the first playoff series that many on the team have ever played in, but don’t overlook the biggest lesson of all here: these Maple Leafs are the real deal.

“We recognize that we’ve come a long way and there’s still obviously more to go,” said Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk. The 27-year old has been subject to trade rumors but said after the loss that he would like to stay in Toronto long-term. “We’ve taken some great steps in the right direction. It’s another summer to be hungry and get better because now, we’re not going to surprise teams anymore.”

They certainly will not. Frederik Andersen, signed before the season to a five-year deal having never played a full season as a No. 1 goalie, emerged as one of the better in the league and clearly capable of shining in the post-season. His .915 save percentage kept the Leafs in the series against a heavily-favored Capitals team. If the Leafs had any chance of forcing a game 7, it was because Andersen stood on his head throughout game 6 and the ACC faithful responded in kind, chanting "Freddie" after the final whistle.

Mitch Marner went from a smallish kid who may or may not crack the lineup to one of the NHL’s more dynamic young playmakers. Nazem Kadri evolved and solidified himself as a strong two-way shut-down center, not just a man with hands. Oh, and that Auston Matthews kid? If he doesn’t win the Calder Trophy, the hockey world will be shocked.

In short, there are many, many less questions surrounding this team.

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When asked what the young core of this team learned from its playoff series together, Kadri got straight to the point: “A lot,” he said. “This is just the start for us. The experience is not overwhelming at all.”

“To think where we were a year ago to where we are now, it’s great to think about,” he added.

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With the Leafs rebuild ahead of schedule, perhaps the most important change has been the perception of the team not across the hockey world but in the city of Toronto. This is a city that for so long has been starved for a team that doesn’t just win; that team emerged, briefly, in 2013. What the city, arguably the center of the hockey universe, really needed was a team it could believe in. The Leafs are woven in tightly through cultural fabric of the city and years of frustration boiled over into forgettable memories like “Salutegate,” or the time that Leafs fan thought it was in the best interest of the fan base to hurl waffles on the ice.

No more. For the first time in over 20 years, the city has embraced the Leafs. Rabid crowds spilled over at Maple Leaf Square outside the Air Canada Centre to watch games on giant screens. And just moments after Sunday night’s loss, the ACC crowd took to their feet to salute a team that finally gave a city reason to believe again.

“I was telling someone today, if you’re not from Toronto and you come to Toronto, you have no idea how spectacular this is,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock after the game. “From the media coverage, to the fanbase, to the love of the team, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. If you’re a good player and you like winning, this is the best place you’re going to play. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s fantastic. So now we’ve got to have a team to match that opportunity.”

The summer will likely be spent upgrading a defense that is questionable and was the biggest reason why the Capitals ended up beating the Leafs. But from the beginning of the season to now, the growth of this team has been a sight to see. If it continues, this is a team that will contend sooner rather than later.

Sunday’s loss might sting in the short-term. There are lessons to be learned. But it’s not hard to look past the playoff exit and see a much brighter future ahead.

“We have goals for the future,” said defenseman Morgan Rielly. “This is just a step in the right direction.”