WASHINGTON -- After getting their first look at the Toronto Maple Leafs this season, the Washington Capitals walked away with a healthy respect for a budding rival that they might have to go through to keep the Stanley Cup. But they are nowhere near ready to hand the Cup over to them.
In fact, the defending champions attributed their 4-2 loss at Capital One Arena on Saturday more to what they did wrong than being unable to hold off a rolling Maple Leafs team that is 5-1-0 after winning four straight on the road.
"They're a good hockey team," Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. "I'm not going to take anything from them, and it's something that we can learn from and get better as a group here as we move forward as well."
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The Capitals still seem to view the Pittsburgh Penguins as their biggest rival after facing them in the Stanley Cup Playoffs each of the past three seasons and finally defeating them in the Eastern Conference Second Round last season. After so many battles against Penguins world-class centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Capitals apparently need to see more than six games from the Maple Leafs' 1-2 center punch of Auston Matthews and John Tavares before they think otherwise.
"We're used to playing against Crosby and Malkin," Capitals center Lars Eller said. "Everything kind of drops from there, so it's not that special."
Eller then said of the Maple Leafs, "It's a good team like a lot of others. They'll probably be a playoff team, I think."
Video: TOR@WSH: Matthews scores his 10th goal of the season
Sure, Matthews continued his remarkable start to the season with his sixth multipoint performance in as many games, scoring a goal and an assist to extend his NHL-leading goal total to 10 and his League-leading point total to 14. Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly is one behind Matthews with 13 points (three goals, 10 assists) after getting an assist on Matthews' goal that gave Toronto a 4-2 lead with 1:39 remaining.
Up until that goal, Matthews had been limited to a secondary assist on the Maple Leafs' first goal -- a deflection by Kasperi Kapanen that tied the score 1-1 at 3:30 of the second period. Tavares and forward Mitchell Marner, who each had 10 points in Toronto's first five games, and Rielly had been held off the score sheet.
But the Maple Leafs, who entered the game leading the NHL with 25 goals, got offense from other sources to rally from 1-0 and 2-1 and took a 3-2 lead on Josh Leivo's power-play goal at 6:28 of the third period. Kapanen's goal was his second of the season, rookie forward Par Lindholm scored his first NHL goal on a redirection with 1:07 left in the second period that tied the game at 2-2 and Leivo's goal was his first of the season.
They also got 25 saves from goaltender Frederik Andersen, who recovered after giving up a rebound goal to Chandler Stephenson 18 seconds into the game.
Video: Capitals not showing signs of slowing down
"They didn't have much," Eller said. "They throw two pucks on the net from the perimeter, it was really low-percentage plays, and that's just what went in for them tonight and it didn't go in for us. We had high-danger chances, but it seemed like they were getting the bounces tonight, especially on the [first] two goals and the last one too."
Matthews' goal came after Rielly's pass from the right point went off Kapanen's stick to the left of the net and bounced off goaltender Braden Holtby to Matthews for a tap-in from the right side of the crease.
"I felt like through the first two periods we carried the majority of the chances," Reirden said. "I loved our start to the game. You've got to play a full 60 minutes in this league against the teams that are the top teams in the League, especially ones that are that dangerous offensively."
The Capitals already had a pretty good idea of how good the Maple Leafs are before the game. They remember the battle the Maple Leafs gave them in the 2017 Eastern Conference First Round before they won that best-of-7 series in six games. Each of those games were decided by one goal, and five required overtime.
Now, after adding Tavares, who signed a seven-year, $77 million contract on July 1, the Maple Leafs have pushed themselves to the head of the conversation about the top challengers to the Capitals' championship reign.
"You don't know a challenger for the Cup until you make it to the playoffs. We know that better than anyone," Holtby said before the game. "But I think they've put themselves in that group now with the top teams that you have to look at them and respect them as one of those powerful teams."
So maybe Eller was selling the Maple Leafs short by saying "they'll probably be a playoff team." But five games into their title defense, the Capitals don't sound ready to concede much more than that.
"They're good," forward Devante Smith-Pelly said. "They're good. It was a close game. I thought we carried play most of the night probably. They have good players over there. We're five games in, so I don't know."