Maple Leafs' confidence high as they keep Capitals close

TORONTO -- Five games, four overtimes and a series between a heavy favorite and a young underdog that's as close as it comes.

The shots on goal are dead even at 175-175, the goals 16-15.

And, because of that, while the Washington Capitals can book their ticket to the second round with a win Sunday night at Air Canada Centre, the confidence of the Toronto Maple Leafs has ballooned in the space of five games.

"It's grown a lot," Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly said Saturday. "We've proven to ourselves we're right there with these guys. We've beat them twice. We've gone to OT four times. We're right there. As a group, we feel confident in the fact we can go out there and play our game, play with speed, and give ourselves a chance to win."

Should we really be surprised that the Leafs are pushing the Capitals this hard?

To help us answer that, I spoke to general manager David Poile, whose No. 8-seeded Nashville Predators swept the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks in the West. The Predators were a popular September pick to make the Stanley Cup finals but lost favor with many due to an inconsistent regular season.

Still, as Poile points out, when you look at the Western Conference standings and the small gap in the points -- 15 from first to eighth -- the difference for the most part "was insignificant." (The gap in the East between the Capitals and Leafs was 23 points.)

"The fact is when you're making predictions about who's going to win each series, can't anybody win?" the veteran Predators GM told ESPN.com Saturday. "There aren't the overwhelming favorites that we had in the past years. In the current NHL, I don't think that's the case."

Nashville's beating Chicago wasn't that great an upset, although the sweep part of it sure was. But Toronto's making Washington sweat it out this much? This was the one series out of the eight in the opening round in which, on paper, there was the potential for the top seed to dominate.

The Caps haven't. Shouldn't we be surprised, even in the least?

"I'm not," said an Eastern Conference team executive Saturday. "Sure, the Leafs are young, and they've played that card well, but they're pretty damn talented. They've got huge offensive talent. Washington has tremendous pressure on them, but they're playing a good team. They just need to get through and not worry about what people think."

I would argue the Caps should feel the urgency to close it out Sunday night, especially given that their old pals from Pittsburgh have been home and cooled since Thursday night.

"If you have the opportunity to push someone off the cliff, you want to push them off," Capitals head coach Barry Trotz said Saturday.

And the longer this series goes, the more Toronto's young stars are getting comfortable. Take franchise center Auston Matthews, who now has three goals in his past three games.

"Every situation you put him in, he seems to figure it out pretty quickly," veteran Leafs winger Matt Martin said Saturday. "You see how elite of a player he is. All our young guys are battling, and that's important. Everyone talks about experience, but we're finding ways to stay alive."

Where the Leafs have not been close to the Caps in this series is on special teams, which is a mild surprise. Toronto had the No. 2 power play in the regular season -- it was an absolute weapon. But the Leafs are just 3-for-17 in this series with man advantage, and in a series in which all five games have been decided by one goal, that's an area of concern for Toronto.

Rielly credited Washington's penalty killers and goalie Braden Holtby for the Game 5 shutdown of the Leafs' power play. But after watching game videos Saturday, the sense in the Leafs room is that it was also partly self-inflicted.

"Our break-ins weren't great, we have to come with more speed; once we get in, we have to get more pucks on net," said Rielly. "It's just a matter of executing and doing what we did all year."

What's intriguing in all that is Trotz was part of Mike Babcock's coaching staff in September for the World Cup of Hockey, and Trotz's responsibility for Team Canada was the power play. Trotz talked earlier in this series about how those tournaments are a great opportunity for fellow coaches to learn from each other but also to share (steal?) strategies and philosophies.

Which makes you wonder if Babcock didn't bring some of Trotz's power-play tactics to the Leafs this season, and, in turn, if Trotz has a pretty good grasp of what Toronto is doing on the power play.

In any case, the Leafs could use a power-play goal Sunday night if they want a better chance of winning Game 6.

But the Leafs do not suffer from a lack of confidence. They've pushed the top seed in five close games.

"Huge," said Babcock of his young team's growth in belief. "I think it's a great opportunity for our team. We're playing against a good team, we're playing well and we're having fun."

Is Game 7 in the cards? You bet, Babcock said Saturday.

"In my mind and in my heart," he said, "that's what I know is going to happen."