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Young Maple Leafs learning value of patience

Limited opportunities in playoffs mean doing things right way is vital

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

WASHINGTON -- This is a column about nothing.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are learning the Stanley Cup Playoffs are like "Seinfeld," even though the playoffs are no joke. The TV show was supposed to be about nothing, but it was really about the minutiae of daily life. All the nothing eventually added up to something. You loved it along the way.

For stretches of the Maple Leafs' 3-2 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round on Thursday, there was no soup for you. Most notably, center Auston Matthews, the 19-year-old rookie who had 69 points (40 goals, 29 assists) in the regular season, had no points and one shot.

Game 2 is at Verizon Center on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports, CSN-DC).

"They found out nothing happens, so just stay patient and keep doing the right things and don't deviate, and something eventually happens," Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said after the morning skate. "You go to the net 40 times. One time it gets there. But just keep doing good things.

"That's what happens to young guys. They get impatient and they get carried away, and then the puck's going the wrong direction."

Video: Wilson, Williams lead Caps to Game 1 overtime win

Babcock brought up Capitals stars Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin.

"OK," he said. "What happened last game?"

Backstrom had no points and three shots. Ovechkin had no points and one shot.

A reporter said they were shut down.

"Well, I don't know if they were shut down, but you don't have an 82-game look at it," Babcock said. "You have a one-game look, and you go, 'Oh my God, nothing happened.' Lots happened. Keep on keeping on."

The Maple Leafs looked good early in Game 1. Forward William Nylander, the 20-year-old rookie who had 61 points (22 goals, 39 assists) in the regular season, had a scoring chance on his first shift. Forward Mitchell Marner, the 19-year-old rookie who had 61 points (19 goals, 42 assists) in the regular season, scored 1:35 into the first period.

Video: TOR@WSH, Gm1: Marner lays out to open the scoring

But the Capitals, the winners of the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's top regular-season team and a popular pick to win the Stanley Cup, got better as the game went on. They came back from a 2-0 deficit and tied the game 2-2. They outshot the Maple Leafs 19-9 in the third period and overtime, 44-37 overall.

It became more of the kind of game the young Maple Leafs were told to expect.

"I think guys that have been in the playoffs before will tell you there's not too many opportunities going back and forth," Matthews said. "There was a good amount of shots last game, but the real Grade A opportunities, there were not too many of them. So I think you just stick with it. You're going to go out there, and you're going to feel like you're doing nothing, and you're going to come off the ice and just get ready for the next shift."


"You get that from experience," said Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk, a veteran of 47 playoff games. "It's a good shift if you go out there and nothing happens. There's going to be a time and a place where different things happen in a game and you want to try to make your play or do something like that. But for the majority of it, it's just playing smart and doing the right thing and not trying to make any crazy plays."

Video: TOR@WSH, Gm1: Gardiner buries wrister through traffic

The good news for the Maple Leafs is that they have a coach who anticipates this, veterans who know this and young players who have the right temperament for this, particularly Matthews. He has the even keel of an aircraft carrier. He went through a 13-game goal drought from Oct. 27 through Nov. 22 and a seven-game goal drought from March 2 through March 16, and he kept on keeping on, amid the media frenzy of Toronto, no less.

"He went through a stretch of games where he hadn't scored in a while, and his personality and his approach has been the same, and that's impressive," center Brian Boyle said. "It might sound like a small thing."

It's not.

The Capitals should start better than they did in Game 1. They won't have opening-night jitters and won't get caught off-guard by the Maple Leafs. They were the top defensive team in the NHL in the regular season, allowing 2.16 goals-against per game. Goaltender Braden Holtby has a .938 career save percentage in the playoffs.

There might be a whole lot of nothing going on at times. So be ready for it. Relish it.

"The intensity from Game 1 to Game 2 is different, and so now you've got to up the ante," Babcock said. "But you've got to enjoy that, love it, love the fact there's no room but you're still going to get the job done."

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