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Young Leafs' leap of faith: Toronto's turnaround keyed by callow-but-confident stars

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Leafs storm back to stun Capitals in Game 3 (2:06)

After trailing 3-1 through the first period, the Maple Leafs claw all the way back to force overtime and then win the game on Tyler Bozak's redirection to take a 2-1 series lead. (2:06)

TORONTO -- It was almost a year ago that the lottery ball fell the Toronto Maple Leafs' way.

On April 30, 2016, the last-place Maple Leafs won the Auston Matthews sweepstakes.

Some 353 days later, hockey's lovable losers are two wins away from knocking off the No. 1 team in the NHL. And whether or not Toronto ousts the Washington Capitals -- against whom it has taken a 2-1 lead in their best-of-seven, first-round series -- it's clear that the Leafs are light-years ahead of schedule.

The learning curve for a team that dressed anywhere from six to eight rookies on any given night this season, and features 10 players who are playing in their first Stanley Cup playoffs this spring, has been nothing short of stunning.

"They're going to be good for a long time, but I never thought they'd this good, this quickly,'' observed a veteran NHL scout on Monday night.

No kidding.

Remember the good old days, when it actually took a few years to rebuild a team? It's as if somebody with the Leafs pressed the fast-forward button in mid-December and never let go.

They were not supposed to make the playoffs this season. Even privately, the Leafs' brass simply hoped they could stay within shouting distance of the postseason long enough to play meaningful games in March.

And they certainly weren't supposed to give the Capitals this kind of a series.

Somebody forgot to tell the players.

"If we don't think we can beat them coming into the series, we don't deserve to be in the series," wise old Auston Matthews, 19, said Monday night after his team's 4-3 overtime win in Game 3 of the series. "That's been our mindset since Game 1, 'We can play with these guys.' We can skate, get in behind their D and create some havoc. That's never been a doubt in our mind.''

This isn't just a quote for public consumption, something for the Toronto media to eat up and spit out to the legion of Leafs fans who are collectively pinching themselves.

No, this is truly how Matthews and his merry band of cherubic teammates actually think.

And why not? They lead the best-of-seven series over the Presidents' Trophy winners 2-1. All three games have gone to overtime. Game 4 is Wednesday in Toronto.

"I thought we gained confidence in Game 1 because we showed we can play,'' said Leafs head coach Mike Babcock. "Game 2 was a big confidence-builder. And obviously now our guys think they're a good hockey team. They're playing a good hockey team, but I think you gain respect for yourself in the process and you start believing that maybe you can do this.''

If winning the Matthews lottery was the seminal moment for the franchise, a close second was the day -- two years ago next month -- that Babcock chose the Leafs over the Buffalo Sabres as his next place of employment.

Babcock's imprint is all over this lightning-quick turnaround. The young Leafs are as prepared as any team in the league. Over the course of the season, Babcock convinced a bunch of goal-hungry thoroughbreds to make smarter decisions with the puck and not always go for glory.

No one is ever going to confuse this team with the neutral-zone-trapping 1995 New Jersey Devils, but the transformation of this Toronto squad into a more responsible team away from the puck and in its defensive zone is nothing short of remarkable.

It starts, however, with the Leafs' speed and their ability to put opposing players on their heels. That speed is giving the slower-footed Capitals fits.

"We think we're quick, we really do,'' Babcock said.

After being largely outplayed by the veteran Capitals in the opening half of Monday's game, Toronto was down 3-1 and lucky the deficit wasn't double that. The Leafs killed a full 5-on-3 Caps power play in the second period -- and suddenly found their legs.

And just like that, a team that looked overwhelmed for almost 30 minutes took over the game. The key, however, is that they've come far enough in their learning curve this season that despite being outplayed to that point, they did not take a knee. Some inexperienced playoff teams might have.

Instead, the Leafs persevered. That tells you a lot about how far they've come in their belief system.

"You can't feel overwhelmed," said Leafs center Nazem Kadri, whose goal cut the lead to 3-2. "That's an important thing because they're a team that can put you away quick. You've got to understand, they're going to push, they're going to have those times when they hem us in our zone. We''ve just got to stay strong, Freddie [Andersen] again was great making timely saves. We just have to understand that if you survive a shift, the next one is a new one.''

The self-assurance in the Toronto dressing room was unmistakable on Monday night. The Leafs players each have that look in their eyes.

"I think it's gone up," Matthews, who got his first goal of the playoffs Monday, said of his team's confidence after three games. "Once you get into the playoffs, the seeding doesn't really matter. It's who wants it more.''

Leafs center Tyler Bozak scored the winner in Game 3 on a power play 1:37 into overtime.

"We've always believed in ourselves," Bozak said. "It's never bad to be in the underdog position. There's a little less pressure. But we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to perform. We believe in ourselves in this room.''

As the self-belief builds for the No. 8 seed, the pressure mounts on the No. 1 seed, the club that carries the mantle of perennial playoff underachiever.

What do the Capitals, who dominated the Leafs for half a game on Monday night but still found a way to lose, do now?

"Just forget it and move forward," captain Alex Ovechkin said. "Obviously, we're losing the series, but it's not over yet. I think we should [have won] this game, but we make a couple mistakes and there was a couple lucky bounces. We move forward."

Washington head coach Barry Trotz spent his morning and postgame media sessions Monday trying to convince the media that there really wasn't much difference between the talent levels of both squads.

"They've got really dynamic forwards, as we do. They have four lines; we have four lines," Trotz said after Game 3. "Their goaltender's playing good, and we've got good goaltending. The defense is matching up pretty good. It's a lot closer match than people let on. It's not David and Goliath. They're a good hockey team. They wouldn't be here if they weren't.''

That's his way of taking the pressure off his team, perhaps. Too late. It's on. Big-time.

The Leafs? They insist they knew they had a chance before this series started.

"We came into this series doing our homework, knowing what to expect, and being prepared, and being organized," Kadri said. "That's what our philosophy has been about. And that's what is going to help us win.''