Sports Hockey

NHL PLAYOFFS

Upstart Maple Leafs ousted in heartbreaking overtime loss to Capitals

By Terry Koshan, Toronto Sun

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TORONTO - 

The Maple Leafs kids were more than all right during the 2016-17 season.

Exhilarating, excellent, exciting — but in the end, not quite strong enough to take the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals to seven games in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Caps won 2-1 in overtime on Sunday night at the Air Canada Centre, taking the best-of-seven series 4-2, and will meet Sidney Crosby and the rest of the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round.

“A lot of people did not expect us to get this far and give us a shot at being in the round of 16,” centre Nazem Kadri said.

“We proved a lot people wrong. We’re proud of ourselves and we’re going to keep our heads high and keep this thing going.

“We still have a ways to go. We’re climbing, though. We’re on our way up, the future is bright for us.

“Something like this experience, playing a team like Washington, a contending team and giving them everything we had and everything they could handle, showed a lot of resiliency from us.”

The winning goal was provided by Marcus Johansson, who scored at 6:31 of the extra period. Johansson slipped the puck past Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen after Justin Williams got the puck to the net.

It was the fifth time in in the series that the Leafs and Caps required overtime to determine a winner. That tied an NHL record for one series, done twice previously.

Auston Matthews, putting an exclamation mark on a great year that surely will net him the Calder Trophy, scored for the fourth consecutive game, giving the Leafs a 1-0 lead at 7:45 of the third period.

The goal had more than a bit of luck involved, but it took the 19-year-old’s skill to ensure the Leafs opened the scoring.

Morgan Rielly’s dump into the Capitals’ end hit a stanchion and the puck bounced to the front of the net, where Matthews gathered it and lifted it over the glove of Caps goalie Braden Holtby.

The closest Capital was Evgeny Kuznetsov, but he could not recover in time to thwart the Leafs forward.

Johansson had tied the game at 12:51 when his shot squeezed past Andersen.

The Leafs fell to 6-16 in team history in Game 6 when they had been trailing 3-2 in a series.

The Caps improved to 7-8 in Game 6 when ahead 3-2 in a series.

Fans cheered as the clubs took part in the traditional post-game handshake, and then roared as the Leafs gave one final stick salute.

“They were way better than us in overtime, I thought,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said.

“But we got to play a really good team, a really well-coached team.

“We got to find out where we’re at and where our players are at. Until you’ve been through the playoffs, you don’t really know the level of players you have. You learn a lot about your team.

“I’m really proud of our guys.”

Kadri and Ovechkin had words — good ones — during the post-game congratulations. The two battled all series, with Kadri’s hit on Ovechkin in Game 5 the hardest in the six games.

“I think he understands more than anybody it’s nothing personal,” Kadri said. “He’s a great player and I have a lot of respect for what he does for the game of hockey.”

The Leafs surprised many in the hockey world, making the playoffs after finishing dead last in 2015-16.

We know this much now: The Leafs are well on the way to being a team that competes in the playoffs for years to come. The days of futility are over.

Andersen is a backbone, the youngsters led by Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander form a solid core, and there are good veterans in Kadri, James van Riemsdyk, Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner.

“It’s not the best feeling,” Matthews said of the loss. “When you look around the room after the game, sitting in here, I think we gave it our all.

“We left it all on the ice and every one of us inspired each other. I think we have a bright future. We have unbelievable support from the city of Toronto and Leafs Nation. (I’m) very proud. I think we definitely turned a lot of heads.”