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Future bright for Maple Leafs despite early exit

Toronto fails to upset Capitals in first round but exceeds expectations with young core

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @Cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

TORONTO -- It was more of a beginning than an ending for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Oh, Air Canada Centre hushed when Marcus Johansson scored 6:31 into overtime Sunday, giving the Washington Capitals a 2-1 win and eliminating the Maple Leafs in six games in the Eastern Conference First Round.

But as the Maple Leafs consoled goaltender Frederik Andersen, the fans applauded. As the players looked up at the scoreboard screen for a replay of the winning goal, the fans chanted, "Go Leafs Go!"

"It gives you goose bumps, even after it ended right there, just how loud the building got for us," Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk said. "They know how far we've come and the effort we've put forth. We're proud to play for this city and for those fans. I think there's a bright future for us."

A year ago, the Maple Leafs missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 10th time in 11 seasons. They finished 30th in the NHL standings, dead last.

 

[RELATED: Complete Maple Leafs vs. Capitals series coverage]

 

And here they were as the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference, facing a team that had won the Presidents' Trophy as the League's top regular-season team for the second straight season, a popular pick to win it all.

It was a matchup that would have been No. 8 vs. No. 1 in the old seeding system, a mismatch on paper and in pixels, and it wasn't a mismatch at all.

It was a classic.

The Maple Leafs and Capitals played six one-goal games. Five went to overtime, tying the NHL record for a playoff series. The Capitals scored 18 goals, the Maple Leafs 16. The Maple Leafs took 213 shots, the Capitals 211.

"We've still got a ways to go," Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri said. "We're climbing, though. We're climbing. We're on our way up."

All that pain endured and a lottery win brought Auston Matthews, the No. 1 pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, who was everything he was hyped to be and more.

Video: WSH@TOR, Gm6: Matthews roofs gorgeous wrist shot

Coach Mike Babcock didn't shelter Matthews on the wing at age 19; he put him at center and let him learn to play with and without the puck. Matthews set Maple Leafs rookie records for goals (40) and points (69) in the regular season, leading NHL rookies in both categories, tying second overall in goals. Then he had four goals in the first round, first among rookies and second overall, and an assist.

"Historic," Kadri said. "That's what he's capable of. He's a great player."

And he's just one of many promising young players. The Maple Leafs had two more among the top four rookie scorers in the regular season (Mitchell Marner and William Nylander) and three more among the top 21 (Connor Brown, Nikita Zaitsev and Zach Hyman). They used another rookie in this series (Kasperi Kapanen) and three more players who had never experienced the playoffs before (Connor Carrick, Martin Marincin and Morgan Rielly).

"You saw right before your eyes guys on the Leafs grow in the playoffs," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "Every experience that you have in the playoffs, you grow a little bit. It adds a layer of hardness, a layer of understanding, a layer of will or competitiveness backbone if you will when you have these series."

Babcock said until you've been through the playoffs, you don't know the level of players you have. He said he learned a lot about his team.

He declined to say what he learned. In the aftermath of the loss, it wasn't the time.

One of the biggest challenges Babcock has faced since taking over the Maple Leafs two years ago is raising the standard, and so he doesn't want everyone to be too happy about losing when Toronto was so close to pulling off an upset.

But he said he was really proud of his guys, and he should be.

"It's hard, grinding hockey," Matthews said. "We played the best team in the League. I think we definitely gave them all they could handle. I think we hold our heads up high. It's obviously not the best feeling, but I think we've definitely got to be proud of each other."

Video: WSH@TOR, Gm6: Caps, Leafs shake hands after the game

Everyone should enjoy this, because it won't be this fun again. From this point, expectations will rise. Next season, the Maple Leafs will be expected to finish higher in the standings and go further in the playoffs. Sooner rather than later, they will be expected to contend for the Stanley Cup.

That's harder by far. Ask the Capitals. While the Maple Leafs played free and easy in this series, having fun with nothing to lose and everything to gain, the Capitals were just trying to get through it to the second round. They have been contenders for years but have not made the conference final. Anything short of the Stanley Cup will be a failure.

As the fans filed out Sunday, two men walked through the lower suites, one wearing a Matthews sweater, the other a Marner sweater. Carlton the Bear, the Maple Leafs mascot, came the other way and held up a paw. The men high-fived him.

"Next year!" one said.

"Next year, brother!" the other said.

For the first time in a long time in Toronto, that has real meaning. 

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