TORONTO – Mike Babcock watched a young team, much like his own, get spanked by a veteran opponent on Tuesday night and wanted his team to be prepared for a similar situation.
He told his players how the level of play would rise higher with every game that passed.
“It’s so important that you get off to a good start here tonight and prepare to compete,” Babcock said before Game 4 on Wednesday morning. “They’re going to compete. We have to compete.”
It didn’t happen, as everything Babcock warned his players about ultimately materialized in a 5-4 loss that pulled Washington even with Toronto at two games apiece in their first-round matchup.
The Capitals came out of the gate in the first period, scoring twice in the first five minutes for the second straight game. They pumped two more past Frederik Andersen before the opening frame was done, simply overwhelming the Leafs with their tenacity, skill, size and presence in the offensive zone.
Toronto looked fast and full of skill in snatching two of the first three games, but none of that was evident through two periods on Wednesday night. The Leafs struggled to gain more than a single flurry of pressure against Braden Holtby.
“I thought today was the first time that maybe we weren’t scared enough of them and it looked like it because our competition level wasn’t good enough,” Babcock said afterward.
The Leafs coach wasn’t so dismayed by a Game 1 loss for the confidence it brought the group. This was different. This was a missed opportunity to wrestle hold of a series that his group wasn’t supposed to win.
Instead, opportunity slipped away.
Tom Wilson, who scored the overtime winner in the opener, had a pair in a dominant first period which saw the Caps outshoot the Leafs 15-6 and manage 26 even-strength shot attempts to just 14 for Toronto.
Wilson was everywhere on both goals, displaying the spirit Babcock was looking for in his group. The 23-year-old first stopped Morgan Rielly’s shot from sneaking across the goal-line and then raced to the other end to deflect an innocent Lars Eller shot. He scored on his next shift to give the Caps a 4-1 advantage after bowling over Rielly near the Washington blue line.
“We’ve got to be more prepared,” said Auston Matthews, who scored late in Toronto’s comeback attempt. “We still have to be prepared to come out on time.”
The Leafs spent next to no time in the Washington end over two periods, hampered by sloppy play, poor execution, and an opponent that seemed to drive up its intensity. The Caps bottled up the speed attack that was so apparent two days earlier in a game Tyler Bozak won for Toronto in overtime.
James van Riemsdyk thought Washington may have made some tweaks to slow the Leafs down through the neutral zone. But it went beyond just tactics for Babcock.
“We didn’t compete hard enough,” he said. “I thought they won all the battles and all the races. I thought they were quicker today. I thought we looked slow and I thought they looked fast. To me, that’s just real simple. I thought they executed better than us and they were on top of us instead of us executing better than them and getting on top of them.”
Babcock wanted his team to be prepared for what the young Oilers, then leading their series 2-1, got from the veteran Sharks a night before. Edmonton surrendered two goals in the first 11 minutes against San Jose and lost 7-0.
What happened in such a situation was two-fold, according to the Leafs coach: “One team relaxes and feels pretty good about themselves, talks to everybody and they all tell you how great they’re doing and the other team gets prepared.”
His team, he said afterward, wasn’t prepared.
They had chances to win regardless. But failing to score with nearly two full minutes of a 5-on-3 advantage seemed to dull any comeback chances. The Leafs twice closed the gap to one, but ultimately dropped a game they deserved to lose.
Whether they can adjust to the new level Washington seems to have established for Game 5 is now the question.
It’s evident, though, that the prospect of simply making it interesting with a superior, Stanley Cup-contending opponent is gone. The Leafs seem to believe they can, and maybe even should, pull off an unlikely upset.
“I think we feel like can come out and control the game,” Rielly said. “It’s not about hanging on and trying to squeak one out, it’s about controlling the play and being in the driver’s seat and going out there and winning the game.
“Best of three now,” Andersen added. “And that’s our focus going into the next game.”