When Marcus Johansson‘s overtime winner ended the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Stanley Cup run on Sunday; instead of lamenting what could have been, the team and their fans held their heads high. The Washington Capitals had already won the Presidents’ Trophy while the Leafs didn’t clinch their playoff berth until early in April.
Entering the playoffs with a rookie core and a goalie playing his first season with the team; the Leafs were definitely underdogs. Very few thought the team would get anything from the series and a four-and-out clean sweep looked like a real possibility. That’s taking nothing away from the Leafs who took Caps to six games, five of which were decided in OT.
As if playing the best team in the league wasn’t hard enough, Toronto started the playoffs without defenseman Nikita Zaitsev while Roman Polak was hurt in the second game, ending his playoffs. Zaitsev returned for game three, giving the Leafs a much needed boost.
The Maple Leafs went into the playoffs with no expectations, and the team played like they’d nothing to lose and that made for some pretty great hockey. That said; Mike Babcock’s men approached the series with a hunger to win, and the triple threat of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander all produced for Toronto. Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk and OT hero Kasperi Kapanen each scored twice as well.
As the Little Blue & White Train struggled to make it over the hill, the Leafs developed a bit more of a following. When your team fails to make the playoffs (my Detroit Red Wings for example), you tend to look for another team to get behind. I’m not talking about jumping on the a band wagon, Blue Jays fans know what I mean, but you latch onto another team. After a few games I was rooting for the Maple Leafs, at the expense of my bracket I wanted to see how far this team, which had no right to win anything could actually go.
Of course, the Leafs were knocked out by the Caps, an outcome which took nobody by surprise. But what was surprising was that I was a little disappointed when I saw the final score. An early exit from the playoffs can often signify a sad end to the season, and if the result had been reversed then questions would have been asked of the Capitals’ management and coaching. But Mike Babcock didn’t start the season with the expectation of winning a Stanley Cup. Without that pressure the Leafs were able mix things up and play around with lines to find the most dangerous setups.
With the exception of the internet and media losing its minds over a guy with some facepaint and an unlit smoke, how on earth did that become a thing? And Nazem Kadri‘s “thigh” hit on Ovechkin; the Leafs’ faithful have a lot to be proud of. A lot of young players gained a lot of experience of playoff hockey.
The Toronto Maple Leafs’ rebuild looks like it’s nearing completion, and that means that fans have a lot to be excited about for next season. The other 30 teams in the league? Maybe not so much.