The Stanley Cup playoffs are an extended roller-coaster of emotions. One day, you're screaming and smiling with your arms in the air, and a short time later, you're on the downswing and looking forward to the next surge. And as they make their way through their 2017 first round series against the Washington Capitals, the Maple Leafs are experiencing the ups and downs that come along with post-season play.
Case in point: one game after the Leafs won Game 3 in a 4-3 overtime decision, they came out flat against the Caps Wednesday in Game 4 at Air Canada Centre, allowed four goals in the first period, and eventually lost 5-3. That defeat meant Toronto missed out on a golden chance to go up 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, but the Buds were staying positive Thursday as they practiced in Toronto before flying out to D.C. and preparing to play Friday night at Verizon Center.
"We're in a much better situation than we were when we went to Washington the first time," head coach Mike Babcock told Leafs TV Thursday. "I think the competition level in each game in every series gets higher and higher. There's a lot more at stake and a lot less recovery space, if that makes any sense. Suddenly you're in a two-out-of-three and you think it's an important series, you want to win Game One. Game One is the next game you play, so it's good. We got a nice meal today, a nice stretch. Let's get ready to play."
"It would be more fun if we were up 3-1 but we're not," added blueliner Connor Carrick. "Last night was an opportunity missed for us. You could tell the urgency on their side was higher than game three. We expected that but it's also hard when the puck drops too - everyone's got a plan until they get hit."
Toronto didn't have their best effort in Game 4, and no one player or factor was the determinant of the loss. Certainly, a second consecutive slow start to the contest stands out as being something Babcock and his players need to address right away, and the fact the Leafs allowed the Capitals to push back relatively quickly after the Buds scored goals to get back into the game is a concern. But the other side of the coin is, even after the Caps built up a three-goal advantage by the first intermission, the Leafs kept their opponent off the scoresheet for the entire second period and for most of the third.
If the Leafs can clean up their play in their own zone, avoid lengthy stretches where Washington dictates the pace of the game, and improve their performance in terms of battles along the boards, there's every chance Toronto can win on the road and head home for Game 6 Sunday with a chance to close out the series with a victory.
"I felt last game wasn't even close to our best game and we still had an opportunity to win the game," said veteran centre Nazem Kadri. "That's a positive that we can take. Just watching the film and studying what we did last game, plain and simple, it wasn't good enough. We know in this dressing room we've got way better than that."
For now, first thing's first - and the very first thing has to be a better showing at the beginning of the first period. For two straight games, the Leafs have given the Caps a 2-0 lead within the first five minutes of action, and that's something that can't continue.
"Without a doubt, starts are important, especially on the road," Kadri said. "We've got to try to get off to a good start and I think the stats don't lie, the majority of teams that score that first goal have a better chance of winning the game. That's just stats and facts."
"The start is going to be very important for our team," added winger Mitch Marner. "We haven't started the way we wanted to really in any of the games. We've just got to make sure we're ready to do that."
The playoff roller-coaster will continue to thrill and terrorize Leafs fans, just as it does for every team still playing at this time of year. From game-to-game and period-to-period, people will experience the full spectrum of emotions as events unfold and the unexpected materializes. That's why Babcock wants his players to appreciate the opportunity in front of them and be energized by the passion and drama of the moment.
If they do that and learn to push through the tough times, the more likely it is this young Leafs team takes the next step in its evolution.
"It's just the greatest thing going," Babcock said of the playoff atmosphere. "You get to play hockey right now. These are bonus games. You have to earn the right to keep playing. I told the players that this morning - the greatest thing about this league and this time of year, you have to earn the right to keep playing. Everyone else goes home, why wouldn't you want to play? There's nothing greater than doing this. These games are the most fun you can have. Dig in."