Photo Credit: Geoff Burke / USA TODAY Sports

In two nights, the Leafs have put the NHL on notice

It seems ever so fitting that the hero in last night’s game, perhaps the biggest Leafs win in over a decade, was Kasperi Kapanen.

Yes, there are cool ways to make the story about him, like the fact that the last Leafs overtime winning goal in the playoffs was scored with his father sitting on the opposition bench fourteen years ago. Or that it’s yet another tally on his resume of monster goals; the equalizer earlier in the same game, the 3-3 goal against the team that drafted him on clinch night, his Game 7 equalizer in the AHL playoffs last season, and obviously his World Junior Golden Goal 16 months ago all come to mind.

But as fantastic as he was last night, Kapanen’s efforts may be as symbolic as they are an individual feat.

Kapanen is the strongest example of all of the descriptors given to the Toronto Maple Leafs this year. At just 20 years old, he’s young on a team of already young players. He’s played fewer games than most of an already experienced group. He’s the player with the lowest current expectations of a group that entered the season with rock-bottom expectations.

Boy, has that group altered that tone. That’s already been a work in progress over the past several months, but especially so in the past few days.

The Leafs, by all accounts, were considered as good as cooked in this series before it even started. Even though they had impressed throughout this year, in every way from the highlight reel to the spreadsheets, they still had an image to shake off and, perhaps more importantly, a goliath to take on in the Capitals. While Washington hasn’t gone on the big run that many have expected out of them over the past few years, this is widely considered to be their finest, most complete form.

But Toronto has stood tall in both games. Their first effort was a series of fortunate bounces by both teams that culminated in victory for the home team, but momentum in the game see-sawed equally until the very end. Even with the Caps’ chances to re-adjust, a team supposedly superior to Toronto in every way has struggled to pull ahead for very long.

In fact, they’ve led this series for fewer than 4 of 150 minutes.

Don’t get me wrong, Toronto has had their moments. They’ve given up golden opportunities as the result of being too hesitant to play the puck out during tired shifts, too quick to make a decision that doesn’t need immediate attention or being too willing to tempt fate with the roulette wheel-esque “Playoff Refereeing”. The road won’t get much easier now, either; that 1-1 on the bracket is a stark reminder to the Capitals that this series isn’t a freebie, and losing Roman Polak last night, no matter how you feel about him in his rougher moments, removes a recently-improved option in a position where the Leafs are incredibly bare.

But if nothing else, the fears that came with generic narratives appear to be thrown out the window. Toronto’s young players are all playing with the utmost of confidence. Their offensively-driven system has held up just fine against an elite team on both sides of the puck, perhaps indicating that the method of creating differential doesn’t matter so much as simply having it does. Frederik Andersen looks not just healthy, but mostly dominant between the pipes. Jake Gardiner and Nazem Kadri, two players who were much-maligned in prior regimes, have been effective in keeping Alexander Ovechkin and Washington’s other stars at bay.

Of course, we’re talking about just two games here. Anything can happen the rest of the way, and it’s still reasonable to believe that Toronto ultimately succumbs to their red-rocking friends at the end of the series.

But they’re showing Washington, and the rest of the hockey world, that they don’t need to fit the stereotypical mould of a playoff hockey team to hold their own. In fact, being counter to the narrative might be the reason that the team continues to break through the moving goalposts and expectations handed to them. If we keep seeing games like the pair that the blue and white have played in Washington, the underestimation might not last for much longer.

  • lukewarmwater

    Jeff superb article, hold on let me double check, yep it is indeed you. Got to remember Jeff I’m so old I can remember the leafs winning cups. As during the regular season the leafs are feeling no pressure. They were not suppose to be a playoff team according to the Buttons of the world. They would be steam rolled against Ovie and the capital punishment crew. Btw is Ovie starting to show the wear and tear of a spectacular career not only for the Capitals but all those games for his home land. Under 3 minutes in the first period is the big Russian playing hurt???
    What a class act by Brian Boyle, showing the respect to that young Caps fan by banging the glass in time with the kid.
    I also think there might be an indirect influence on another team that Rogers are involved in namely the Blue Jays who became old over night. Obviously and hopefully they will realise it is time to tear the team down and build up the farm system. Time will tell if the ex Cleveland crew are the guys to do it. Are they the equivalent of leaping Lou, Babs, Hunter and company. We shall see.
    As you astutely point out the Capitals finished first for a reason and Williams stated the obvious they will continue to try to pound the leafs into submission and go leg and head hunting. Hopefully the refs similar to the Ducks and Flames series will make the culprits of the cross checks and head shots pay for it.
    I just want to in conclusion to wish everyone a very happy Easter Sunday.

  • The Russian Rocket

    Gardiner is looking like he’s on a trajectory to be a top 10 defender in the league. He’s not there right now but his quick exits from the D-zone and poise in the offensive end is becoming more and more impressive.