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Rivalry developing between Maple Leafs, Capitals

Building blocks in place for competitive matchups, contentious future

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The Toronto Maple Leafs knew nothing they did Tuesday could erase the disappointment of their loss to the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season. 

But there was some significance to their 2-0 victory at Capital One Arena, with the hope of more to come in this budding rivalry.

"These are the big games. The good teams you get up for," Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen said after his 30-save shutout. "I think you want to kind of measure yourself a little bit, especially since they beat us last year in the playoffs. I think it's fun for us to come down here and get a little bit of revenge. 

"Obviously, it doesn't count as much, but it's something for the future."


[RELATED: Anderson makes 30 saves, Maple Leafs Shutout Capitals] 


The future includes two more games between the Maple Leafs and Capitals this season. The first is at Air Canada Centre on Nov. 25. Then they'll play outdoors in the 2018 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland on March 3. 

"I'm looking forward to that one," Maple Leafs left wing James van Riemsdyk said. "That should be a pretty special thing. Playing [in Annapolis] should be unbelievable."

Van Riemsdyk has played outdoors four times in his nine NHL seasons. When he was with the Philadelphia Flyers, he played against the Boston Bruins in the 2010 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Fenway Park in Boston and against the New York Rangers in the 2012 NHL Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. With the Maple Leafs, van Riemsdyk faced the Detroit Red Wings in the 2014 NHL Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor and in the 2017 NHL Centennial Classic at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto. 

Video: Weekes and Reid on the Capitals-Leafs game

This season, the Maple Leafs are off to a 5-1-0 start heading into their home game against the Red Wings on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; SN360, SN1, TVA Sports, FS-D+, NHL.TV). As Original Six teams, the Maple Leafs and Red Wings have been playing against each other for 91 years. By comparison, the Maple Leafs-Capitals rivalry is in its infancy.

As Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock noted, the Capitals' biggest rival is probably the Pittsburgh Penguins, who eliminated them in the Eastern Conference Second Round each of the past two seasons.

The Capitals' six-game victory against the Maple Leafs in the first round last season was the first playoff series between teams. But that series was filled with emotional moments that have the potential to be building blocks for a contentious future. 

All six of the games were decided by one goal, with five requiring overtime. The Capitals finally advanced with a 2-1 overtime victory in Game 6 in Toronto.

"A playoff series, that's kind of where rivalries come from," said Capitals right wing Tom Wilson, a Toronto native who scored three goals in the series. "When the games are on the line in the most important time of year and emotions are high, that creates a rivalry. Definitely these two teams now have gotten a little bit of something that's started."

Last season, the Capitals were the favorites as the Presidents' Trophy winners with a star-filled lineup that included Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie. The Maple Leafs were the up-and-coming team, making its first playoff appearance since 2013, with young stars such as Calder Trophy winner Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitchell Marner.

Toronto is hoping to take the next step this season after adding veterans with playoff experience including Patrick Marleau, 38, and Dominic Moore, 37. Matthews, 20, is already one of the League's elite players and though he had a quiet game Tuesday (no points, one shot on goal), he was dominant before that with eight points (five goals, three assists) in his first five games.

The Capitals still have a lot of star power with Ovechkin (NHL-best nine goals), Backstrom (three goals, eight assists), Kuznetsov (11 assists) and Oshie (five goals, three assists) but are in transition after the offseason departures of forwards Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson, and defensemen Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk and Nate Schmidt. 

They were already thin on defense before losing Matt Niskanen to an upper-body injury in a 5-2 win against the New Jersey Devils on Friday. Their loss to the Maple Leafs was their fourth in five games (1-3-1), leaving them at 3-3-1 for the season.

Most expected a high-scoring game with the Maple Leafs coming in averaging a League-high 5.2 goals per game, but it turned into a defensive chess match. After Connor Brown's rebound goal 5:53 into the third period gave the Maple Leafs a 1-0 lead, the Capitals pressured offensively and couldn't get anything past Andersen before Nazem Kadri's clinching empty-net goal with 21.1 seconds left.

Video: Andersen, Maple Leafs blank Capitals, 2-0

"These teams now both respect each other a lot," Wilson said. "Both teams have a lot of firepower in the top six, and you know what? Both teams have kind of seen what the other can do, so maybe there was a bit of a feeling-out period and respecting kind of on the defensive side of the puck."

That kind of familiarity comes from a playoff series. Maybe the outdoor game in Annapolis will serve as a preview for another series in the spring with, perhaps, the Maple Leafs being the favorite this time.

That would add another chapter to the young rivalry.

"Rivalries are really started when you play a hard playoff series," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "If you keep going back to the well and have the same playoff series year after year, it becomes a pretty good rivalry."

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