If the Toronto Maple Leafs are worried about having to play the best team in the NHL, they’re not showing it.
On Sunday, the Maple Leafs had the chance to earn third place in the Atlantic Division. All they needed was one point in their final regular season game. Instead, they lost in regulation to the Columbus Blue Jackets and slid back into the second wild card spot thus setting up a series with Washington.
Granted, for a Toronto team that was not expected to reach the postseason this year, it would be hard to be disappointed, but that doesn’t make the task for a young Maple Leafs team of somehow finding a way to beat the Caps any less daunting.
“They are big, they are strong, they are fast, they have been beaten a number of times in the playoffs, so they are battle-tested to say the least,” Toronto head coach Mike Babcock said, “and they are as hungry as any team in the NHL and playing as good.”
“They’re the best team in the league,” rookie phenom Auston Matthews said. “Obviously they’re really talented. … We have to be ready to compete, ready to work hard.”
But while the Leafs may be saying the right things, they are also making it very clear that they aren’t scared of Washington.
“Scare us? Nah, I don’t think they should,” Matthews said. “They’re a good team, but they’re not unbeatable.”
“The playoffs are not going to be easy no matter how you skin the cat,” defenseman Connor Carrick said. “So let’s go to work. We’re going to go into someone’s building and try to give them hell.
A former Cap himself, Carrick also knows what’s at stake for Washington this season.
“It’s a big year for them, a lot on the line. I know teams talk about opportunities and windows and all that, and this looks like some prime years for some of their better players so there is a lot of pressure on them to come out.”
That’s the interesting part of these early matchups between contenders and teams like Toronto. Yes, the Caps are the heavy favorites, but a lot of pressure comes with that. Toronto, meanwhile, has no expectations. Just getting to this point is an accomplishment.
That can be a very freeing feeling. The Leafs are playing with house money while the weight of the world rests on Washington’s shoulders. Is that enough for an upset? No, but that is how the frontrunners lose control of a series. If Toronto wins just one of the first two games in Washington, the pressure will build for the Caps while the confidence will grow for the Leafs.
Suddenly, the underdog begins to believe they can win.
Judging by the players’ early thoughts on this series, it certainly sounds as if the Leafs already do.
Said defenseman Jake Gardiner, “You gotta beat the best at some point so might as well do it in the first round.”
MORE CAPITALS: NHL 2017 Capitals Playoff schedule