Young Leafs overflowing with Cup potential Capitals once had
By STEPHEN WHYNO
"I have some good memories," Nylander said.
Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom remembers those days, too. It was a decade ago when he, Ovechkin and Washington's "Young Guns" looked like a powerhouse that could win the Stanley Cup multiple times and dominate the NHL for years to come. The Capitals beat Nylander and the Toronto Maple Leafs last spring in their ninth playoff appearance in 10 years but have yet to advance past the second round.
As the Maple Leafs and Capitals meet outdoors at the U.S. Naval Academy on Saturday night, they're both legitimate contenders but look like teams going in opposite directions in the near future. Toronto is at the start of its championship window and Washington appears on the edge of running out of time.
There are plenty of similarities.
"It was a lot of excitement around the team when we were at that age. I'm sure they're feeling the same," Backstrom said. Asked if there was less stress in that position, he added: "Yeah, but actually time flies. They've got to enjoy every moment."
The Metropolitan Division-leading Capitals are headed back to the playoffs and with Ovechkin, Backstrom and goaltender Braden Holtby still have the potential to lift the Cup this June. But after the salary cap necessitated roster changes after two consecutive Presidents' Trophy-winning seasons, they don't have quite the external pressure as a Cup favorite.
"You've just got to get in," coach Barry Trotz said. "If you get in and you've got everybody playing at the top of their game at the same time, you've got a chance."
Toronto certainly has a shot without the pressure as Matthews and Marner are just 20, while Nylander is 21. The Maple Leafs' young stars are as excited as Ovechkin and Backstrom were when they were beginning their NHL journeys but fully understand - perhaps from seeing the Capitals' regular-season success and playoff losses - that talent doesn't magically turn into championships. Veteran general manager Lou Lamoriello augmented his young core with 38-year-old leader Patrick Marleau and Cup-winning defenseman Ron Hainsey in the offseason, and acquired center Tomas Plekanec at the trade deadline.
There has also been the natural progression of the three young stars.
"I just think we're significantly better because our young guys are better," said coach Mike Babcock, who won the Cup with Detroit in 2003 and is signed through the 2022-23 season. "They've been through it more. They've seen what it's like. They've been eliminated from the playoffs. They know right away here you get in the playoffs and then 10 days later one of you is moving on and one of you goes home."
Almost immediately after the playoff exit, Maple Leafs players tried to rationalize it as growing pains. Now looking down on the Capitals in the Eastern Conference standings, the Maple Leafs can feel the progress with their next playoff trip a month away.
"It just motivates you," 23-year-old defenseman Morgan Rielly said. "Even though we didn't win the series, I think that we proved to ourselves that we can play with those high-end teams, and I think that moving forward we have to believe in ourselves."
Marleau, who rode the roller coaster of Cup contention in 19 seasons with the San Jose Sharks that included just one trip to the final in 2016, said the belief is always there no matter the external expectations.
"When you're in the locker room, when you're with the guys, you always believe in them and you always think you have a chance of winning," Marleau said. "You've got to put in the work and put yourself in the right spots to succeed and then when it comes playoff time, crunch time, you know you've got to have some luck and some bounces here and there."
Washington might be a few bounces away from its own dynasty - a save on Ovechkin early in Game 7 against the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009, several stops by Jaroslav Halak in 2010 and an empty net against the Rangers in 2015. That's just reality in a sport so full of parity.
The same thing could surely happen to the Maple Leafs. Amid all the potential and excitement surrounding his group, Babcock knows it.
"Don't get me wrong, we're still going to have lots of highs and lots of crushing lows," he said. "That's just part of being on a good team. But you want to set yourself up for as many opportunities as you can possibly have, and I think we're going in the right direction that way."
Updated March 2, 2018