When the dust had settled and the Toronto Maple Leafs were to set take on the Washington Capitals, the chances for Mike Babcock’s young team didn’t look very good. The Capitals were coming off of their second consecutive President’s Trophy-winning season with 55 wins and 118 points. For perspective, the Pittsburgh Penguins finished in second place in the NHL standings this season and recorded 50 wins and 111 points. Still, the Maple Leafs had been breaking down barriers all season.
When the 2016-17 season started, the Maple Leafs were the youngest team in the league. In the middle of a rebuild, the expectations were never very high. The team competed hard each night, however, and some phenomenal rookie play from some new NHL faces propelled the Leafs into the postseason. When given the chance to play for Lord Stanley’s Cup, players very quickly learn that anything can happen – even when playing against the league’s top team.
New Season, New Expectations
The Washington Capitals dominated the NHL this season, scoring the third-most goals per game at 3.18, allowing the least goals-against per game with 2.16, converting the fourth-best power play percentage at 23.1, and killing off the seventh-most penalties with an 83.8 penalty kill percentage. Heading into the postseason, the Maple Leafs were no slouches themselves in most of those categories. The team finished fifth in goals per game with 3.05 and converted on 23.8 percent of their penalties – good for second in the league while killing off 82.5 percent of their penalties, good for 10th in the NHL. It was their goals-against per game that really hurt the Maple Leafs this season, however. While the team scored 250 goals on the year, they also allowed 234 against, good for 2.85 goals against per game and 22nd in the NHL.
Heading into the postseason, anything that happened in the regular season can be thrown out the window. The series’ records read 0-0 and hockey’s second season was set to begin. The tone was set immediately as the Maple Leafs scored two goals in the first 10 minutes of the series to show the Capitals that they were capable of hanging with the best. Despite ultimately losing the game by a score of 3-2 in overtime, it was clear that the Maple Leafs weren’t going to go quietly by the wayside while the Capitals advanced to the second round. Game two was more of the same as the two teams once again played into overtime before the Maple Leafs eventually scored the game-winning goal in the second overtime courtesy of Kasperi Kapanen’s second goal of the game – just the second of his postseason career.
Returning Home With Momentum
The first two games showed that anything can happen – it also meant momentum was swinging in favor of the Maple Leafs. After taking one win on the road, the young original-six team was set to return home for two games in front of their home crowd. With momentum shifted and things looking good for Toronto, the expectations should remain the same. The team headed into the season still very early into their rebuilding process. With that in mind, the ability to create noise in the first two games of the series and cause some uncertainty in the minds of the Capitals was already a win in itself for the Leafs.
There have been major upsets in sports in the past. There will be major upsets in sports in the future. The Maple Leafs are looking at creating noise now and potentially upsetting the Capitals, but that isn’t their ultimate goal. As goaltender Frederik Andersen mentioned, the postseason play this year isn’t just about the experience for the young players in the lineup.
“I don’t think we expect to just have an experience,” Andersen said. “We want to be here for real and play as good as we can. Everyone’s talking about how it’s been unexpected for us to just make the playoffs but we want to do more. We want to show we can play.”
Whether Toronto can do anything with their momentum or not is still up in the air. What is clear, however, is the fact that the Maple Leafs are a good, young team that has a very bright future. With one of the best head coaches in the game in Babcock coupled with a front office featuring Lou Lamoriello and Brendan Shanahan, the sky is the limit.
The Future Holds Even More Potential
While there are many Maple Leafs players who have already stepped up, the team has even more potential to show over the next few seasons. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Connor Brown may have all had greats years, but they are also still just rookies. The best for them could still be to come – a prospect that should make the city of Toronto salivate.
In addition to the young stars in the lineup, the Maple Leafs also have other draft picks who were stockpiled in recent years who have yet to make their Maple Leafs debuts. Players taken in the top two rounds of the NHL draft are always the ones who hold the most potential, and the Maple Leafs still have some prospects in Yegor Korshkov, Carl Grundstrom, Travis Dermott and Jeremy Bracco among others who could become solid NHL players in the future.
The Maple Leafs would love to make a deep run in the postseason this year. Still, their end-game isn’t just a successful 2016-17 campaign. The goal will be to establish themselves as one of the league’s best teams over the next few seasons. With the way the rebuild has already gone, and with the way this team has gelled – there’s no reason to believe this won’t be the case sooner than later.