WASHINGTON — They were young once, too.
A decade ago a feisty, fearless, talented group of Capitals dubbed the Young Guns led their team to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in five years. Expectations were low. Just crashing the postseason party made the season a success.
But Alex Ovechkin and company weren’t satisfied or intimidated that spring of 2008. They rallied to win Game 1 of an Eastern Conference quarterfinal vs. the Philadelphia Flyers, shook off two elimination games — one at home in Game 5 and one on the road in Game 6 — and eventually fell in overtime of Game 7. So much for easing into things. After three last-place finishes in a row, those Caps played with a brash confidence that belied their years.
Ovechkin, 31, and teammate Nicklas Backstrom, 29, are older now, the only ones left from that original postseason group. New teammates have long since filled in around them. But as they prepare for their latest playoff test, Washington’s opponent looks familiar.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have populated the lineup with young stars reminiscent of those early Caps. On Saturday, before a rowdy crowd at Air Canada Centre, the Leafs clinched just their second playoff berth since 2004 with an emotional 5-3 comeback win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The two most prominent Washington players remember that feeling well. The Caps finished the 2007-08 regular season with a home game against the Florida Panthers. Win and they would take the Southeast Division and go to the playoffs for the first time during the Ovechkin era. Lose and the season was over.
They won 3-1, setting off the very same raucous celebration at Verizon Center that was just witnessed in Toronto over the weekend as the sellout crowd roared, coaches hugged on the bench and players raced onto the ice to mob goalie Cristobal Huet. Ovechkin whirled his arms like a helicopter as he skated off the ice and then fired his stick into the crowd. Jubilant doesn’t begin to describe it.
“Obviously, it was great emotions for us, you know?” Ovechkin said on Sunday after his team finished its latest regular season with a 2-0 loss to Florida. “I think everybody never had that feelings before — just a couple of guys. But for us as a young group, it was a great atmosphere and everybody was happy because we take a huge step forward as an organization and as players.”
The Maple Leafs could dress as many as 11 players in the upcoming series, which begins on Thursday at 7 p.m., with zero playoff experience, including star rookies Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews and second-year pro William Nylander.
But those 2008 Caps have them beat. Washington used 14 players in that first series who had never before seen ice time in the playoffs. Twelve of them appeared in all seven games against the Flyers.
The Caps have missed the playoffs just one time since. And while they have yet to break through the second-round ceiling, they have put together three Presidents’ Trophy-winning seasons with the NHL’s best record. Washington did it by drafting Ovechkin No. 1 overall in 2004 to start its rebuild and Backstrom No. 4 in 2006. Defenseman Karl Alzner was the No. 5 pick in 2007.
The hits kept coming. Defenseman John Carlson and forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson, Tom Wilson and Andre Burakovsky were all selected in the first round between 2008 and 2013. Defenseman Dmitry Orlov was a second-round pick (2009). Both goalies — Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby (2008) and backup Philipp Grubauer (2010) — were fourth rounders. It’s still primarily a homegrown team with 14 of its 23 top players either drafted or signed as college free agents.
Toronto has taken a similar path since a 2013 playoff catastrophe against Boston when the Leafs blew a 4-1 lead in Game 7 and lost in overtime. Nylander (22 goals, 39 assists) was chosen in the first round in 2014 (No. 8) followed by Marner (19 goals, 42 assists), a first-round pick in 2015 (No. 4). Matthews put that group over the top, a generational talent taken with the first pick in last June’s draft. He had 40 goals as a rookie. Nylander is still just 20, Matthews and Marner remain teenagers at 19.
“That’s kind of how everything started out here. They kind of go through a bit of a rebuild or whatever you want to call it — a restructure,” Alzner said. “I don’t even know what they say these days. But you have to start somewhere and it usually starts by putting some pucks in the net and then you find the defensive game after.”
That’s another area where Toronto resembles Washington of 2007-08. The Caps could score back then and within two years that young core totaled 313 goals. No NHL team has done better in 20 years. Ovechkin alone had an incredible 65 goals and 112 points in 2007-08. He was just 22. Backstrom had 14 goals and 55 assists in his second NHL season. He was 20. It’s not hard to see the Leafs making a similar jump soon.
But that Washington team wasn’t quite ready. The blueline was shaky, the goaltending untested. The Caps finished 18th in goals allowed per game (2.77) that season. The current Leafs (2.85) rank 22nd even with decent goaltending from Frederik Andersen (.918 save percentage, 17th overall).
Toronto defensemen Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev and Connor Carrick — a Washington draft pick in 2012 — haven’t played in a playoff game ever. Think back to the 2008 Caps when Mike Green, Shaone Morrisonn, Milan Jurcina, Steve Eminger, John Erskine and Jeff Schultz were in the same spot. Only Tom Poti (24 games) had postseason experience for Washington on the blueline. Eventually, it showed.
The Leafs are in a better shape there with Matt Hunwick (20 games) and Roman Polak (49). Plus, Andersen has started 28 playoff games the previous three seasons with the Anaheim Ducks.
But if there is any lesson to pull from the Caps a decade ago it’s that experience in the Stanley Cup playoffs is too often an excuse to simply pick the older team. They’ve been there before so they must have an advantage. Knowledge and wisdom convey and young teams get stage fright. Postseason hockey mocks such certainty.
“You obviously want to use that experience a bit, but in the end you’ve got to see them for what they are,” Holtby said. “They’re a skilled team and their identity is that speed, skilled game. We’re going to find out the ways to push our game as they do theirs. Experience only helps if you use it in the right way. Hopefully we do.”
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