After coughing up a 2-0 lead to the Columbus Blue Jackets with 28 minutes left in game #82 of the regular season, the Maple Leafs have drawn the President’s Trophy winners in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.

It’s hard to sugarcoat the fact that the Leafs just blew another multi-goal lead (for the 15th time this season) and with it went the opportunity to play a banged-up Ottawa Senators team in round one, a matchup that would’ve given the Leafs legitimate round-two aspirations. In addition to the benefit of playing in a split-crowd environment on the road in the playoffs (“seven home games”), the Senators are the only playoff team in either Conference with a negative goals differential this season. While the Leafs gave up more than the Sens defensively this season, they matched up as the superior offensive club with significantly better special teams.

The half-full take here, though, is that all season long — and particularly down the stretch, when they manufactured a 14-5-1 run — the Leafs have succeeded at exceeding expectations in an expectation-free environment, and there are certainly no expectations on their end entering this matchup against the Washington Capitals.

A series against Ottawa might have made it easier to forget that this Leafs team is way ahead of schedule and needed a lot to go right — Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner’s career years, the absurd collective production of their rookies, good injury luck (until this weekend), and a great year from Frederik Andersen — just to be here; “here” being one point inside the playoff cutoff line, with the highest goals against and fewer wins than any other playoff club.

The Capitals, on the other hand, enter the playoffs as the best team in the league. They boast the league’s third-best offense by goals for and are one of few teams as deep as the Leafs up front, with two 30-plus goal scorers (same as the Leafs), five 20-plus goal scorers (same as the Leafs), and 11 players with 10 or more goals this season (two more than the Leafs). On paper, this Leafs team doesn’t come close to owning the defensive depth required to match up with the depth of the Capitals offense, even if the defence is operating at full strength (and on that front, we’ll wait to hear word on the status of Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak).

Washington is also the league’s best defensive team, allowing 16 fewer goals than the next-best Columbus Blue Jackets. Any question marks that lingered about the Caps’ blue line group have been addressed through the addition of Kevin Shattenkirk at the deadline, giving them a formidable defence group that is seven deep. They’ve got the 2015-16 Vezina-Trophy winning goaltender in net in Braden Holtby, who has posted fewer wins this season than last (48 vs. 42) but still led the league in the category while finishing second in save percentage (>50 GP). They will have home-ice advantage, and they’re 32-7-2 at the Verizon Centre (66 home points, best in the league).

The Capitals are also the team dealing with the highest pressure to win it all — having yet to advance past the second round in the Ovechkin era — and they’re now matched up against the team with the least to lose. Three losses in their last four aside, the Leafs’ record down the stretch suggests they are taking strides at the right time of year. They’ve got a good starting goalie (provided he’s healthy), excellent special teams, a deep forward group, and one of the best coaches in the league behind the bench. And they’re playing with house money.

Leafs fans told themselves, “whatever happens, it’s all gravy,” prior to the series against the Boston Bruins in 2013 only to be teased by a 3-1 series comeback and have it end in the most heartbreaking way imaginable. As painful as that was, far worse was that it took four years for the Leafs to return to this position.

There is a lot about this rebuild — the generational franchise center, the core of under-24 talent, the coaching staff and management, the depth of young talent in the system — that suggests, whether or not they pull off a miracle and win a round this Spring, the next four years should be much different this time around.

In the meantime, buckle up. Let’s find out if the young Leafs can keep surprising.

Washington Capitals (M1) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (WC2) – Round 1 Schedule

DateTimeHome team
Thursday, April 137:00 p.m.Washington
Saturday, April 157:00 p.m.Washington
Monday, April 177:00 p.m.Toronto
Wednesday, April 197:00 p.m.Toronto
Friday, April 21*TBDWashington
Sunday April 23*TBDToronto
Tuesday, April 25*TBDWashington
*if necessary

How They Got There – 2016/17 Maple Leafs