WASHINGTON -- The kids are all right. If the Toronto Maple Leafs take anything from Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round, that is it.
The Maple Leafs lost to the Washington Capitals 3-2 in overtime at Verizon Center on Thursday, and they had a 2-0 lead in the first period. That means they missed an opportunity.
But this was Toronto's first appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2013, second since 2004. Nine players made their NHL playoff debut. Five others had played seven NHL postseason games or fewer.
And they came into one of the loudest rinks in the League, one where they had lost seven straight. They took it to the best team in the League in the regular season and a popular Cup pick. They put a scare into the crowd. They were one shot from winning.
"Confidence-builder, for sure," Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said.
Game 2 is here on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports, CSN-DC).
"I think it erases any doubts if the kids had it," Maple Leafs defenseman Matt Hunwick said. "For the most part, we know we're a good team. Now I think they know it."
Babcock told the Maple Leafs they are good players and could play at a high level. They didn't need to stand around and watch Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and company. They could play. They could win.
They listened. They took a 1-0 lead 1:35 into the first, when forward James van Riemsdyk was stopped on a 2-on-1, collected the rebound, and threw the puck off the side of the net. It bounced out front, and 19-year-old rookie Mitchell Marner slapped it in. They took a 2-0 lead at 9:44 when defenseman Jake Gardiner wristed a shot that deflected off Capitals forward T.J. Oshie.
"I just think we didn't come with any nerves," Marner said. "That was important for us, to just come in here and act like it's another hockey game, and I think that's what we all did."
If anyone felt nervous, it was the Capitals and their fans.
"Wake up!" someone screamed from the stands.
The Maple Leafs lost eight games in the regular season when they led by two goals or more, most in the NHL. They lost this one after Capitals forward Justin Williams scored at 12:24 of the first and 16:00 of the second, and Washington forward Tom Wilson scored 5:15 into OT.
But it's not like they sat back on the lead and blew it.
Williams' first goal came on a fluky play essentially in a 5-on-3 situation. Capitals defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk's stick broke on a shot attempt, the puck slid to Oshie, and Oshie passed to Williams for a tap-in two seconds after the first of overlapping penalties expired.
His second goal came when goaltender Frederik Andersen stopped a shot by Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen but didn't realize the puck was sitting underneath him. Williams poked it in for the 35th NHL playoff goal of his career. The entire Toronto lineup had 33.
The Maple Leafs outshot the Capitals through two periods 28-25.
Now, the Capitals outshot the Maple Leafs in the third 13-7, and Andersen had to be excellent. But Marner had a chance with a toe drag into the slot and a shot, and Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby had to stay square to make a big save himself.
And the winner? Well, defenseman Martin Marincin tried to clear the puck off the glass, and Wilson knocked it down with his glove and shot it from the far side of the right circle. He had not scored in 28 previous NHL playoff games, but this shot whizzed past Andersen's glove, the same glove that had been so good all night.
"That's playoff hockey," Babcock said.
Babcock would like the Maple Leafs to do more of what Wilson did, putting the puck on net instead of overpassing, because you never know what might happen. He would like them to avoid penalties, especially to go down two men. He'd sure like them to win Game 2, not just to steal home-ice advantage, but to keep a psychological edge.
"We've got to keep it tight so they stay tight," Babcock said. "They get too loose, it'll make it too easy for them."
But this was a valuable lesson for the Maple Leafs.
"What they found out tonight is, you can skate with them," Babcock said. "You can be physical. Their [defensemen] give the puck back to you when you're physical just like if they're physical with us. I just think it's important to get a taste and understand what the game's like and what it feels like."
The vibe in the Toronto locker room was not frustration. It was more like, "Man, that was fun. Let's do it again."
"They're a heck of a team, but I also think we're no slouch either," Gardiner said. "So we're not going away."
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