Invariably, when a series ends in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the weapons set down, it’s far easier for the victor to submit praise than it is for the team that’s ousted to acknowledge and accept its legitimacy.
To wit, in the moments that immediately followed Marcus Johansson’s decisive overtime winner on Sunday night, which saw the top-seeded Washington Capitals escape their highly competitive opening-round war with the Toronto Maple Leafs in six games, Braden Holtby readily delivered the sort of long-term franchise assessment typically reserved for the fallout of a genuine postseason struggle.
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“We knew they were going to be a tough team,” the goaltender said in an on-ice interview after the 2-1 triumph, “but we didn’t know they would be this good. They are going to be a challenge for a lot of years to come.”
This isn’t just high praise, or an eloquent sigh of relief. These were the sort of words that haven’t been earnestly spoken about this franchise in decades. Not once in a generation.
The reminder would be enough to alleviate the sting for some. But when repeated to Zach Hyman, one of eight rookies on a roster that made remarkable strides over the course of 88 games this year, he remained deadpan, unaffected.
“It sucks right now, it’s awful,” he said. “It’s not a good feeling.”
It was an understandably difficult moment for the 24-year-old, who, like everyone else in the Maple Leafs dressing room, came to believe in their hearts of hearts that they could conquer Goliath in Round 1.
And how could you blame them? You can only successfully punch up for so long before you feel like you’re sparring in the proper weight class. But three of the five overtimes were won by the Capitals, as was a sixth one-goal game in the series, and the top seed advanced, while the upstart Leafs must now embark on what will be the longest summer in some time, despite it being two weeks shorter than what’s become customary.
That feeling of disappointment, the one Hyman couldn’t conceal, was universally shared in the Maple Leafs room. But as he sat bewildered in this stall, others were able to contextualize, and uncover important perspective.
There are a few players – the so-called veterans – who have endured some hopeless phases in Maple Leafs history. And while they’re still young in their own right, they have a grasp of what this team was, and what it can become, as they continue on the process of building toward something special.
“We want to get the Maple Leafs back to their rightful place in the NHL,” James van Riemsdyk said, invoking the words of enterprising team president and kingpin Brendan Shanahan.
“How far we have come in particular over the last couple of years, even just in this year I think it’s really exciting for us, and there’s definitely a lot to build on.”
“This is just the start for us I think,” said Nazem Kadri, another one of the few survivors of multiple regimes. “The experience was not overwhelming at all. It’s tough to simulate anything even close to similar to what just happened in the last couple weeks. It’s good for our hockey team.
“To think about where we were a year ago to where we are now, it’s great to think about.”
Despite the seemingly inappreciable discrepancy in the series, a generational rookie in Auston Matthews leading a high-powered offence, and the sudden emergence of an evidently legitimate No. 1 goaltender in Frederik Andersen, Kadri admitted that the Maple Leafs aren’t willing to consider themselves one of the NHL’s elite teams yet.
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But perhaps for the first time in his seven seasons with the franchise, he, among others, can actually see that objective as realistic and attainable.
“We’re climbing,” he said. “We’re on our way up. The future is bright for us.”
Before long, they will all see it that way.
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