WASHINGTON -- The Washington Capitals kept saying they knew their Eastern Conference First Round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs was not going to be easy.
Whether they really believed that or were trying to force themselves to believe it so they wouldn't overlook the young Maple Leafs doesn't matter now. What does matter is the Capitals know for sure, as coach Barry Trotz said, "We're in one," after a 4-3 double-overtime loss to the Maple Leafs in Game 2 at Verizon Center on Saturday.
The Capitals are in a tough and potentially long best-of-7 series, which is tied 1-1 and heading to Toronto for Game 3 on Monday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports 2, CSN-DC).
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"We're playing a very good team on the other side, and they're battling," Trotz said. "They want it very bad, and we want it too."
On paper, Washington appeared to be the superior team heading into the series. It had 55 wins and 118 points to win the Presidents' Trophy, and with its depth at forward and on defense and reigning Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby in net, it seemed to finally be set up to advance beyond the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 1998 and make a real run at its first championship.
Toronto, which had 95 points to earn the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference, had nine players in the lineup for Game 1 on Thursday who were making their postseason debut.
But the Maple Leafs have looked far from overwhelmed by the playoff spotlight in this series. In fact, they've played the Capitals as evenly as the tied series indicates.
Video: TOR@WSH, Gm2: Ovechkin fires in PPG from the circle
They jumped out to a 2-0 lead in Game 1 before allowing the Capitals to come back and win 3-2 in overtime. Undeterred, Toronto absorbed Washington's early surge in Game 2 and pushed back to grab a 1-0 lead on James van Riemsdyk's goal with 2:26 remaining in the first period.
After the Capitals answered with power-play goals from Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson in the second period to take a 2-1 lead, the Maple Leafs pushed back again and tied it on Kasperi Kapanen's goal at 14:25 of the second. Then, Toronto retook the lead with Morgan Rielly's power-play goal with 13.1 seconds remaining in the period.
An epic shift that led to Nicklas Backstrom's tying goal 12:39 into the third period seemed to indicate the Capitals were finally ready to impose their will on the Maple Leafs, who were down to five defensemen after Roman Polak sustained a lower-body injury on a hit from Brooks Oprik in the second period.
But Washington was unable to get another shot past goaltender Frederik Andersen, who made 47 saves, and Kapanen ended up being the hero with his second goal of the night 11:53 into the second overtime.
Video: TOR@WSH, Gm2: Holtby sprawls to rob Nylander in front
"Nobody said it's going to be easy series. They are a good team," said Ovechkin, who couldn't finish on a breakaway in the final minute of the first overtime. "It's going to be maybe a long series, maybe a short series. You never know. We just have to play our way to get success."
The thing is the Capitals haven't been able to play their way that much so far. A team that was dominant playing from ahead all season, scoring the first goal 58 times in their 82 regular-season games, has struggled to get a lead and keep it.
The 3:19 the Capitals led following Carlson's goal represents their only time playing with a lead in the series. The Maple Leafs scored first in each of the first two games and have led for 43:31.
"We've been chasing this series a little bit," Trotz said. "It's been a little bit of an uphill battle, so it's been a test. But we're going to Toronto and see if we can do what they did to us."
If the Capitals are frustrated, they aren't saying it. Interestingly, many of their players described Game 2 and the series as fun.
Verizon Center was rocking from the opening faceoff Saturday, with fan-giveaway cowbells clanking incessantly until Kapanen scored the winner off a feed from Brian Boyle from behind the net.
Video: TOR@WSH, Gm2: Backstrom slams home deflected puck
"Obviously it's tough, but it was fun," Ovechkin said. "It's a fun moment. That's why we play 82 games to be in this moment. I think we are mentally and physically ready."
Now, the Capitals must rest, regroup and get ready to head into a hostile environment at Air Canada Centre for the next two games. The Maple Leafs haven't hosted a playoff game since 2013, so their fans will be fired up to see if their young underdogs can take the favored Capitals down another notch.
Right wing Justin Williams said he planned to, "Go home, have some water, I'm going to sleep, then I'm going to come back [Sunday] and get on the plane and have a Game 3."
"We're playing good," Backstrom said. "I feel like we're creating a lot of chances. We're staying positive and we know it's a new game coming up Monday, so we've got to regroup here and look forward."