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Capitals get 'wake-up call' from Maple Leafs in Game 1

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Barry Trotz’s smirk said it all.

The Washington Capitals coach spoke with a certain satisfaction after his group — one fitted directly under the microscope after many premature exits in the Stanley Cup Playoffs — was forced to claw back from a two-goal deficit and work into overtime to upend the eighth-seeded Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2 in Game 1 of their opening-round series on Thursday night.

Perhaps a gauge on Trotz’s blood temperature would tell a different story, but based on his session with the media, it was almost like if he had the choice, he would welcome that adversity all over again.

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“It was a really good wake-up call for us,” Trotz said. “You get in the playoffs and there are no easy games. The Leafs were well prepared. They’re a good hockey team. Their kids are exceptional talents. They can play. You gotta play them hard.”

He added: “I know we have another level, so it’s great that we had the start that we had and we were able to come out on the positive end. We can build on that.”

Beyond the fact that Trotz eschewed the advantage of last change for most of the game, instead experimenting by electing not to match lines (for no reason other than the simple reason that his team can), his serene post-game approach emphasized a harsh reality that faces the Maple Leafs in this series.

The outcome proved that the Capitals can look completely disjointed, at times lifeless, and their goaltender can lack his usual sharpness, and the many top-six stars on Washington can sleep through large stretches and the talent and experience discrepancies that separate the Presidents’ Trophy winners from the wild-card Maple Leafs can wind up neutralizing all that.

Because eventually, as Toronto had maintained its lead long enough, and remained one shot away from stealing Game 1 until the very end, it forced the Capitals to dig a little deeper, and then a little deeper, in a game they seemed to approach with a mid-November mentality.

Once the standard they had to meet was established and the balance of chances and shots began tilting in their favour, the overtime winner — which came off the stick of Toronto kid Tom Wilson five minutes into overtime — started to seem inevitable.

It will be this urgency and insistence that Trotz will point to as the determining factor in the comeback win and what’s ultimately required to see the Capitals finally live up to the expectations that have tormented this team for the better part of the last decade.

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It was a night where the Maple Leafs rookies were to be taught a lesson in playoff hockey.

Perhaps the veteran Capitals will have absorbed some knowledge, too.

“It’s playoff time,” Trotz said, matter-of-factly. “I’m sure you will see a different team next game.”