The Toronto Maple Leafs lack of playoff experience will be a factor, but the overwhelming pressure on the Washington Capitals could help minimize Toronto’s inexperience.
Let’s rewind to the Toronto Maple Leafs series against the Boston Bruins during the 2013 NHL Playoffs when the upstart Leafs headed to TD Garden Arena to take on the battle tested Bruins.
One of the main narratives entering this series was how the Leafs lacked playoff experience and how the Bruins, who were fresh off a Stanley Cup victory in 2011, were riddled with veterans and knew how to win in the postseason.
While you could argue the “inexperience” narrative came to fruition in Game 7 during the infamous collapse, it was just as glaring in Game 1 when the Leafs took an early first period lead on James van Riemsdyk‘s goal and then self-destructed en route to a 4-1 loss. Outside of JVR, the Leafs looked lost in the moment and were completely uncomfortable in Game 1.
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With an even younger, more inexperienced team entering this postseason, could the Leafs face a similar situation in Game 1 on Thursday night when they play the Washington Capitals? Perhaps. But one factor that could help the Maple Leafs is the overwhelming pressure the Washington Capitals face.
Everyone is not only expecting the Capitals to beat the Maple Leafs, they’re expecting this team to make a deep playoff run and finally advance past the second round. Considering how loaded this Washington team is, those expectations are more than fair.
However, this is a team known for their playoff failures. In the last 10 years the Capitals have had six teams with over 100 points, but they’ve never made it out of the second round. Don’t think for a second this team isn’t aware of their failures and what’s at stake for them this postseason.
On the flip side, nothing is expected of the Leafs other than maybe winning a game. For a young and inexperienced team like Toronto this could be a golden opportunity and Mike Babcock knows it.
The “pucker factor” Babcock mentioned is something the Leafs will certainly need if they’re going to pull off the improbable. But if the Leafs are indeed able to catch a break early on, questions of “is this happening again” could inevitably creep into the Capitals’ minds.
Toronto Maple Leafs
It’s a gigantic hypothetical to ponder, but the “pucker factor” Babcock discussed is tough to argue against, especially since he experienced it during his first year with the Detroit Red Wings in 2005. While the Capitals didn’t finish the year with 58 wins like the Red Wings did, they are still a dominant team who is heavily favoured to win.
For the Leafs, the combination of inexperience and minimal expectation could prove to be an asset, not a detriment. Yes, there will more than likely be a tremendous adjustment once the game starts. But since the majority of this Toronto team has barely any NHL playoff experience, they’re like a blank slate waiting to be chiseled out. The beauty behind that blank slate is it has no flaws, or, in the case of the Leafs, no bad habits yet.
Meanwhile, Washington is a team with hardly any bad habits on the ice, but their culture, especially in the playoffs, is decorated with disappointment and failure. Whether the Caps like to admit it or not, human nature suggests they’re certainly aware of their history.
On the surface, playing a young, inexperienced team like the Maple Leafs should be good for the Capitals. But aren’t the teams with nothing to lose usually the most frightening teams to play against?