Leafs need to show a little desperation
TORONTO — The lessons learned in springtime are the harshest. And yet they’re the ones that resonate the most.
The underdog Toronto Maple Leafs have gleaned an important one during their Stanley Cup playoffs opening-round series against the Washington Capitals, which is now a best-of-three heading into Game 5 on Friday at 7 p.m.: that being able to match the desperation level of a team on the ropes is the difference come playoff time between the pretenders and the clubs that advance.
The toughest pill to swallow was that everyone saw it coming.
On Wednesday morning, Toronto head coach Mike Babcock invoked — unsolicited the San Jose Sharks’ Game 4 crush job on the Edmonton Oilers from the previous night, noting it was the perfect reminder of what can happen when a veteran team gets put in a corner at this time of year. It always comes out swinging.
How younger teams ready themselves for that tells the tale. The Oilers, like their young pals in Toronto, raced out to a 2-1 series lead and then basked in the media spotlight while the veteran Sharks were under the gun. Just as the top-seeded Capitals were feeling the heat, too, after going down 2-1 in their series against Leafs.
“We’ve got to be more prepared,” said first-year superstar Auston Matthews after Game 4. “We knew for them it was a do-or-die game. We’ve got to be prepared for that, and come out on time, because I think when we start playing like we did down the stretch we make it a lot harder for them.”
The Jedi mind tricks were on full display again Thursday before the team jetted back to Washington for Game 5. Babcock invoked the good ol’ time-machine ploy in their morning meeting. He reminded his troops that, had someone told them back before the season began they would not only make the playoffs but be tied 2-2 with the powerhouse Capitals midway through a playoff series, they would have been “doing cartwheels.”
He’s right, of course. If you’re the Leafs, the league’s 30th-place team just a year ago, how do you not take stock for a moment and realize what an auspicious, unexpected position you’re in before Game 5?
“Yeah, for sure,” young star winger Mitch Marner said, acknowledging the merits of the time-machine brain tease. “They’re a great team over there, everyone knows that. It’s been a fun series so far. We just have to be ready at the start next game.”