There was only one way this series could be decided: elimination game overtime.
What a game. What a series. What a season.
Your game in ten:
1. On Saturday, Mike Babcock said he wanted another one-shot game and that he’d love the fifth overtime of the series in Game 6. He got just that. At some point along the way, the Leafs were going to need a good bounce and a lights-out performance from Frederik Andersen to pull off this series upset. They got both in this game and sat ten minutes away from forcing a one-game-takes-all scenario. To Washington’s immense credit, it still wasn’t quite enough. The Capitals showed their class after the Leafs took the lead in the third. Their resolve in taking over the game after conceding the 1-0 goal suggests this probably isn’t the same Capitals team of yesteryear (turns out playoff “clutchiness” is something tangible and acquirable, in the form of Justin Williams). The overtime period was sheer Washington dominance and the goal felt like it was just matter of time. Indeed, the better team won.
2. Let’s not mistake that for the significantly better team winning. In a six-game series that deserved seven, the outcome was decided on a razor’s edge: five OTs, the cumulative score was 18-16, shots were 213-11 Toronto, and 5v5 possession was 51% in favour of Washington. There wasn’t much between the teams in terms of their forward groups (the Leafs’ fourth line was better than the Caps’ as the series wore on) and the goaltending was more or less even, while the Capitals defence unsurprisingly proved itself deeper than Toronto’s throughout the series (it was no coincidence that the Caps got better when their “number seven,” Nate Schmidt, entered the lineup in the place of Karl Alzner). It goes down as a six-game out in the first round but it felt longer and more gruelling with all of the bonus periods and one-goal games. The Leafs gave the President’s Trophy winners everything they could handle.
3. It seemed like all anyone talked about on the Leafs 1-0 goal was the crazy bounce off the stanchion and not the quality of Matthews’ finish. He essentially scooped up the puck on its side and deposited it in the top corner of the net while skating at pace. The finish felt unfair to the goalie, similar to Sidney Crosby’s lacrosse goal from back in the day.
That was Matthews’ 44th goal in his first 88 NHL games, and he finished his season with goals in four consecutive playoff games. He led this team to (and in) the playoffs as a 19-year-old. Tonight’s goal was nearly the perfect way to cap a rookie year the likes of which this franchise has never seen before, and one we may never see again in our lifetimes.
4. Deserves a point on its own: Auston Matthews is a Toronto Maple Leaf.
5. While it was one of the luckier assists he’ll ever record, that goal also gave Morgan Rielly his fifth point in six playoff games. After an up-and-down season in which he finished with an underwhelming 27 points (keeping in mind role/usage, with marginal PP time), Rielly played his best hockey in a Leaf jersey in these playoffs. He averaged nearly 27 minutes a game, took more shifts (233) than any other player in the first round of the playoffs, played significant minutes on both sides of special teams, scored a big goal, and finished tops among Leafs defencemen with a shot attempt percentage of 54%. The growing pains in a tough role were evident at times this season, but Rielly’s playoff performance stands as a sign that he’s taken steps through the experience (now he needs a partner). It was particularly interesting to see him play so well on the right side in this series because that could potentially open up some new avenues for improving the defence group as a whole.
6. Much of the same applies for Jake Gardiner, who had a coming out party of sorts in the playoffs (or maybe a shutting-up party, in terms of his detractors). He played 28-plus minutes a night, much of it against top competition, picked up three points, nearly put the Leafs ahead but rang a cross-bar tonight, showed his value again and again by evading a formidable Washington forecheck and breaking pucks out, defended as well as he ever has in a Leafs jersey, and finished a plus-player in terms of goals plus/minus and possession. The debate’s officially over, if it wasn’t already: Gardiner is part of the solution, not the problem.
7. Hard to play a better game in a losing effort than Frederik Andersen did in this one, putting an exclamation mark on an individual season that, like the team itself, got better as the year wore on. The shots narrowly favoured the Leafs in this game, but the grade-A scoring chances certainly did not. This game is 4-1 Capitals if Andersen was anything short of spectacular tonight. He went toe-to-toe in the playoffs with a Vezina Trophy winner (and current) finalist at the other end of the rink and needed to be better than him just to send this game to overtime.
Matthews scored a goal to give the Leafs a lead they never would’ve had if it wasn’t for Freddy’s steadiness in net. Apropos as far as the Leafs’ 2016-17 season story goes.
One season in, it looks like the Leafs bet a five-year contract on the right goalie.
8. It’s worth pointing out that the Leafs let a tonne of extra points slip this season through their overtime and shootout struggles. As much as those lost points were costly, they’re not really something worthy of concern going forward. The shootout record will rebound (ultimately, it can’t get much worse). The Leafs needed just one more point from one of those extra time games and they would have been on the other side of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket with the Senators and Rangers/Habs in between them and the Conference Finals.
However, they also surrendered a lot of multi-goal leads, including a costly one in the last game of the season that created this matchup against Washington in the first place. They made the playoffs by a single point and finished with the fewest wins of any playoff team, the highest goals against, and the highest shots against.
9. The Leafs also had nine regulars play a full 82 games (Matthews, JVR, Kadri, Gardiner, Brown, Zaitsev, Komarov, Hyman, Martin) and an additional five appear in 75 or more (Nylander, Bozak, Rielly, Polak, Marner). While Andersen sustained an injury before the season, he stayed healthy enough to start 66 games. The team’s overall health might be partially a credit to the sports science department, but Lou Lamoriello mentioned in a radio interview before the playoffs started that he’s never had his team stay this healthy before.
As immensely promising as the performance of the rookies was this season (and to think they’re only getting better), the Leafs can’t assume everything will fall in place so nicely next season if they just leave the roster to sit and develop. They also won’t be surprising anyone anymore in 2017-18. They have to keep actively improving the roster, specifically on the backend. Of course, Lou Lamoriello and co. know this full well.
10. The goal now shifts to winning the organization’s first playoff round since 2004 and opening the window for Stanley Cup contention. Bring on the offseason.