Series loss to Capitals stings for Maple Leafs, but lessons learned will pay dividends for both teams

"They're young but they're strong," said Alex Ovechkin, left, of rookie Auston Matthews and his Toronto teammates. "They have a very good future." Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

TORONTO -- Was that joy or relief on the face of Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis in his team's dressing room on Sunday night? Given that his team had just won in overtime to survive its first-round series against the underdog Toronto Maple Leafs -- a surprising young squad he said he was hoping to avoid -- it was probably a mix of both. Much like what every Capitals fan alive was feeling.

"The Leafs reminds me so much of our team five or six years ago,'' Leonsis told ESPN.com after Sunday's 2-1, Game 6, series-clinching victory. "They're going to be in the playoffs for the next decade or so.''

Leonsis then recalled a recent conversation he had with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment chairman Larry Tanenbaum.

"Larry and I have become friends because we share having basketball and hockey teams,'' Leonsis said. "I told him about a month ago that I didn't want to play him in the playoffs because they just look like an ascendant team. They're really good, and that was a real battle.''

Was it ever. The most entertaining first-round series of the Stanley Cup playoffs featured six one-goal games, five of them in overtime. And to think the wild-card Leafs and Presidents' Trophy-winning Capitals were two teams that, on paper anyway, weren't supposed to even swim in the same waters.

We kept waiting for the top-seeded Capitals to impose their will. But period-by-period and game-by-game, the Leafs stayed with them -- until the very end.

From the moment Auston Matthews scored 7:45 into the third period on Sunday to give Toronto a 1-0 lead, the crowds both inside the Air Canada Centre and outside in Maple Leaf Square were delirious, sensing a seventh and deciding game in the offing. But it was then that the veteran Caps finally stepped up and played their defining stretch.

Washington dominated the rest of the third period and overtime, as Marcus Johansson scored twice and Washington finally asserted itself for good.

"I didn't think we had the puck much after that," Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said. "You have a chance to walk out the door in overtime, it's in your building, you're in an elimination game, so push them. We didn't push them. They pushed us.''

There's an important distinction to be made here. In the end, the Caps didn't just survive and hope for the best. They finally did take control and impose their will on the young Leafs when it mattered most. It's a closer mentality that over the years has often escaped the Caps. Like a year ago, when with a 3-0 series lead they needed three tries to finish off Philadelphia in the opening round.

"It's a great feeling, this is the way we wanted to finish it off,'' said top Caps center Nicklas Backstrom. "In overtimes before we were sitting back a little bit, maybe. I thought this overtime we kept going and kept pushing pressure on them. You can't be scared of winning. It's something we hopefully learned.''

Now, a cynic might question just how impressive it really was that the Caps beat a No. 8-seeded team by the collective skin of their teeth, in a series of one-goal wins.

Still, for the Caps the Leafs presented a different challenge altogether: a rising, talented team that, going into the playoffs, felt it was way better than the outside world knew. And the pressure that came with being happy just winning the series and not having to prove anything beyond that.

There's a mental test in that, to be sure.

"We were the favorite going in," said Trotz. "Everyone made it was like we were the big-time favorite. The other team is going, 'We've got nothing to lose.' We're on the other side going, 'We've got everything to lose.' So that hardened us too. We've handled that a lot better this year versus last year. That's where I like where our team is going in terms of the growth and finding the next level of maturity.''

Speaking of maturity, there was a lot of that on display down the hall in the home dressing room.

The young Leafs were understandably crushed in the immediate aftermath of the loss -- but also were quick to understand what an remarkable season of growth it had been for them.

"It's not the best feeling, but when you look around the locker room after the game, I think we gave it our all," Matthews, who will win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, said after his first NHL season had just ended. "I think we left it all out on the ice. Every one of us is proud of each other. I think we have a bright future, we have unbelievable support from the city of Toronto and Leafs Nation. I think for us the future is definitely bright.''

You get a feeling their spring foray next year will last longer.

"Give them credit," Caps captain Alex Ovechkin said. "They battled hard. They're young but they're strong. They have a very good future. They have good, young players and they will be successful in the next year and next couple of years."

It hits you, hearing Ovechkin speak of the Leafs, his hair grayer than ever, that it feels like yesterday we all felt this way about the Caps. A decade ago they were so full of promise, a future seemingly limitless.

But facing the team of the future helped Washington remember that its window to win is closing. The Capitals' moment to shine is now. And they made sure to seize it on Sunday night.