In Washington for Game 1 of their first-round series versus the President’s Trophy winning Capitals, the Toronto Maple Leafs have officially embarked on the ostensible “take postseason lumps” stage of the step-by-step process they hope will take them from scorched earth to championship parade.
Regardless of matchup, seeding, and circumstance, a rebuilding franchise’s return venture into the Stanley Cup Playoffs is in many respects about gaining requisite experience. Though the circumstances vary over the years, learning how to win has long been considered a rite of passage in the NHL. The Edmonton Oilers went through it in the early 80’s before their title run, and so too did the Chicago Blackhawks before establishing the NHL’s modern dynasty.
Losing to the Columbus Blue Jackets on the final day of the regular season to set up the matchup in Washington was a gravely disappointing upshot for the Maple Leafs and their fans. There may have been better than a coin-flip chance to soak up this experience for two or more rounds if the beleaguered Ottawa Senators represented their first-round opponent.
But there is a benefit drawing the NHL’s most dominant team over the last two seasons in the opening round: direct exposure to the standard they wish to achieve.
The Maple Leafs fully recognize this opportunity, but also understand that they can’t be passengers if they’re to take anything from it.
“The first five minutes is going to be the most important,” Auston Matthews said after the Leafs’ morning skate. “They are going to come out hard, going to play physical, play fast. We have to be ready to answer it.”
James van Riemsdyk, one of the few Maple Leafs who understand an amplified NHL, agreed, saying they can’t afford to hesitate.
“You don’t want to be feeling things out too much. We know they are experienced – they are jacked up to be playing on home ice. We know they are going to come out hard. We have to match that off the start.”
The Maple Leafs stumbled over the finish line, losing three of their last four games to eke into the eighth seed, a skid that began with a convincing 4-1 loss to Washington.
But it is important not to infer much from that loss. It came on the second half of a travelling back-to-back on the heels of a critical 4-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres, which at the time made a postseason berth a virtual certainty. It was one of the few times Leafs coach Mike Babcock has allowed fatigue to be used as an excuse.
Toronto will have central figures absent – Nikita Zaitsev being the most prominent casualty – but the war of attrition cannot be used as an excuse in Game 1.
Just once in the two-and-a-half months since the Maple Leafs took their beach vacations for All-Star weekend have they had three days off between games.
“It was nice to get a couple days to regroup,” said van Riemsdyk. “We’re rejuvenated and excited for the opportunity that’s ahead of us now.”
Within the first five minutes, we might have a good idea if they will seize it.