For the Maple Leafs, No Playoff Experience is Better Than Bad Playoff Experience

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
April 18, 2017

Is experience overrated?

In some fields, the answer is definitively no. Heart surgeon? Airline pilot? The person at the airline who decides what happens when a flight is overbooked? You want someone that has more than one year on the job in those roles because the smallest mistake can cost people their lives.

But in sports? In hockey, specifically? Maybe it’s time we throw that experience narrative out the window with the same force the Washington Capitals throw chances to win the Stanley Cup out the window.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are young, dumb and full of competitive fire that is serving them well in what is the first or second postseason for many of the team’s best players. Facing a Capitals team that is this generation’s Magellan of discovering new ways to lose in the postseason, the Leafs won a second straight overtime game Monday night and hold a 2-1 lead in a first-round series few gave them a chance of winning.

Obviously, experience can be helpful. For example, the Chicago Blackhawks’ experience includes three Stanley Cups and Olympic medals in international play for their core players. So, the Blackhawks can call upon their experience if they are facing an up-and-coming team that might equal them on talent.

Down 2-1 in the series, the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals are in some trouble. Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

But what if your veteran-laden team’s playoff experience is almost exclusively the kind of choking only seen by the likes of a poisoned Joffrey Baratheon? What if all your postseason trips for a decade have ended with paramedics standing over your blue corpse pronouncing you dead before the third round?

The person with the most experience on the Leafs’ bench is coach Mike Babcock, who knows what it’s like to win a Stanley Cup and be the Presidents’ Trophy winners that gag in the playoffs. After a 124-point season in 2005-06, the Babcock-led Red Wings lost in six games to the eighth-seeded Oilers.

It’s not that Babcock predicted the Capitals would clinch up in this series, but he clearly felt it was a possibility. Perhaps we should have taken him more seriously.

“That ‘pucker factor’ is an unbelievable thing,” he said last week. “And until you’ve been the best seed until you have your whole city expecting, you don’t what that’s like and how good a defense that is for the underdog.

“My first year in Detroit I hadn’t seen anything like it—I couldn’t believe how we couldn’t skate or pass. Pressure is a wonderful thing when you’re the underdog.”

Everyone thought the Leafs were the perfect first-round matchup for the Capitals. Maybe we had it backward.

The Capitals had the Leafs by the throat in the second period of Game 3. They were leading 3-1 and had a two-minute, 5-on-3 power play. The Capitals were a firing squad. The Leafs were blindfolded and prepared to accept their fate. Yet the Capitals did what they do best—they pointed the gun at their feet and pulled the trigger.

Then Nazem Kadri scored. Then William Nylander scored his first career playoff goal on the first career playoff assists from Auston Matthews and Zach Hyman.

Experience is supposed to take over in a tie game, right? Series tied 1-1. Game tied 3-3. The moment is as big as it has ever been for many Toronto players. So what happened in the third period?

The Leafs outshot the Capitals 5-0 over the first 6:34 and 9-3 overall during the final 20 minutes. Lars Eller took a high-sticking penalty in the final seconds to set up Tyler Bozak’s overtime winner on the power play.

The Leafs are two wins away from an improbable first round upset. Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

If you didn’t know which team was which, you’d think the Capitals were the young team still figuring out how to win the playoffs—and you’d only be half-right.

Coming into the season, everyone agreed the Leafs were loaded with talent but this wasn’t going to be the year, not one year removed from a tank season. Then they made the playoffs and did so with little difficulty.

At that point, everyone agreed the Leafs were loaded with talent but this wasn’t going to be the year for a playoff run. Especially after they lost their season finale to the Columbus Blue Jackets, which meant a meeting with the Capitals instead of the more beatable Ottawa Senators. This series against the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals would serve as a building block for future postseason success.

But after three evenly played games against Washington, maybe everyone should stop counting out the Leafs based on past problems that have nothing to do with Matthews, Mitch Marner, Nylander, Hyman, Frederik Andersen, etc.

The Capitals should still be considered the favorite to win the series, but the Leafs are showing that no experience can be better than bad experience.