In less than 24 hours, the Toronto Maple Leafs went from "Oh, yeah!" to, approximately, "Oh, shoot."
Thanks to an old habit this new team thought it had conquered in recent days, only to see it resurface at the worst possible time - blowing leads - the euphoria of Saturday night's playoff-clinching win over the Pitttsburgh Penguins dissipated quickly Sunday when the Leafs blew a two-goal lead and lost 3-2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The loss took the Leafs from meeting a favourite playoff foe in the first round, the Ottawa Senators, to opening the postseason on Thursday against the NHL's best team in the regular season, the first-place-overall Washington Capitals. No one is going to give the youthful Leafs much of a chance to win the first-round series.
After the Leafs came from behind Saturday to beat the defending Stanley Cup champions 5-3 and clinch their first appearance in the NHL playoffs since 2013 and first in a full 82-game season since 2004, head coach Mike Babcock told reporters the pressure was off his young players. The coach was trying to say that now they could relax and play hard against the Blue Jackets and make the jump to third place in the Atlantic Division from the second wild-card spot to draw a better matchup against the Senators, who are coping with injury problems and have an 0-4 record in postseason series against the Leafs hanging over their heads.
The idea, Babcock thought, was that his players might buy in and play well. Alas, no.
Even though the Blue Jackets, whose playoff match against the Penguins was already determined, rested a bunch of regulars and started their backup goalie, the Leafs faded after James van Riemsdyk scored twice to give them a 2-0 second-period lead. Matt Calvert and Josh Anderson scored to tie it up and the killer was a shorthanded goal by Cam Atkinson with 40 seconds left in the period.
"Obviously, we're disappointed," Babcock said. "I did my best trying to lie to you [Saturday] night. I was hoping someone might listen. I thought that [Saturday] night was emotional for us and I thought it was going to be – I was hoping we were going to have enough juice [Sunday] to dig in and get going and I didn't think we had much juice.
"In saying all that, if you'd have told me at the start that we could be in this situation we're in right now, obviously I would have done a little jig. So, I'm thrilled with the progress of our team. In saying that, we've drawn a real good team and we're going to find out what playoff hockey is in a hurry. We're going to find out it's much different than regular-season hockey. You might as well figure that out quick."
The problem is, beating the Washington Capitals, even though their own postseason resume is rather thin, is just a little much for the Leafs, who have had a charmed season with all the rookies in the lineup but really are not equipped to handle a deep team like the Caps. Washington can score with the best with players like Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and defend with the best with goaltender Braden Holtby and a defence that boasts offensive forces like Kevin Shattenkirk and John Carlson, who can also defend well.
In three regular-season games against the Caps, the Leafs have one win, one regulation-time loss and an overtime loss. But fresh in everyone's mind is last week's 4-1 regulation loss, when the Caps had Shattenkirk, acquired near the Mar. 1 trade deadline, in the lineup and thoroughly outplayed the Leafs. The Leafs have never played the Capitals in the playoffs, but there will be precious few "experts' picking them to win.
"I'll do my best over the next couple of days to explain what's going to happen," Babcock said of giving his inexperienced troops a crash course in playoff hockey. "They're not going to believe me and then it's going to happen."
The Leafs also have to cope with injuries for one of the few times this season. Goaltender Frederik Andersen was lost Saturday to his second head injury in two weeks. Then two defencemen went down in the Columbus game, Nikita Zaitsev after taking a hard body check, and Roman Polak. Polak returned later in the game but Zaitsev did not. As usual, the Leafs did not disclose the exact nature of the injuries.
Babcock said he expects all three players to be ready when the Capitals series opens Thursday in Washington.
"That's a team that is probably the best team in our league with their skill level, their depth, their goaltending, the way they defend," Leafs veteran centre Brian Boyle said of the Caps. "We got a taste of it first-hand a couple of days ago so it's going to be a challenge. We're going to have to compete.
"It should be really exciting. You wouldn't know it now because we're disappointed with how [Sunday night] went, but it's the most fun hockey there is, playoff hockey, and the first round, for whatever reason, it seems like the hardest, most intense. It's really kind of like buckle up and get ready to go because that's how it is – you hit the ground running."
There was also a sense of what-the-heck around the Leafs' dressing room, as well.
"You've got to beat the best at some point, so we might as well do it in the first round," said defenceman Jake Gardiner.