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Maple Leafs learned playoff lessons the hard way in Game 1

Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen (31) teammates watches the puck bounce away from goal against Washington Capitals right wing Brett Connolly (10) in the third period in game one of the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Verizon Center.

Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports

The Toronto Maple Leafs came out flying and hitting in their first playoff game but wound up learning the hardest lesson in the ultimate school of hard knocks, the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Now, instead of the Washington Capitals having to spend two nights fretting about blowing a playoff game and the franchise's reputation for postseason flops, it is the young Maple Leafs who have to think about a missed opportunity. More food for thought heading into Saturday night's second game of their first-round NHL playoff series is that even one mistake in a playoff game will kill you, let alone two. You also have to be careful of everyone on the ice because NHL history is full of unlikely heroes, such as Caps fourth-liner Tom Wilson, who scored the winning goal in overtime in the series opener.

Capitals head coach Barry Trotz made it clear his team knows it dodged a bullet in Game 1.

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"There's a saying in the coaching fraternity, 'It's not always what you get it's what you leave,'" Trotz said Friday. "What you leave sometimes are opportunities for the other team. I thought early in the game we left them lots of opportunities, and we were fortunate that they didn't capitalize on as many as we did. And then they gave us some opportunities, we earned some opportunities and we were able to capitalize on a couple.

"I think from our standpoint, we're looking at it as we didn't play our best game. That was far from our best game and we got a victory."

Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock was thinking the same thing.

"I really thought we passed up a ton of opportunities to shoot the puck , trying to make a better play, a better play," he said. "At playoff time, there's no better play. Just get to the net and get people to the net without it and shoot the pill."

That is exactly what happened with Wilson. He became the latest instant big story in the NHL playoffs a little more than five minutes into overtime when he threw the puck at the net and caught Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen, who had been flashing his glove all night like Troy Tulowitzki, thinking he was going to pass. The result was a 3-2 comeback win after the Leafs had a 2-0 lead in the first period.

Now Wilson has a chance to join unsung playoff heroes such as John Druce, one of his Caps predecessors who went from fringe player to scoring 14 goals in 15 playoff games in 1990 including four game-winners. That helped take the Capitals to the conference final. Or there is Chris Kontos, who scored nine goals in 11 playoff games with the Los Angeles Kings in 1989, although some guy named Gretzky was setting him up.

There is also more recent history, such as this week when Wilson was joined by fellow worker bees Joel Edmundson of the St. Louis Blues and Melker Karlsson of the San Jose Sharks in scoring the winners. Even better, Wilson is a Toronto native who grew up as a Leafs fan and then was dismissed by Babcock on the eve of the playoffs.

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"Nothing against [Wilson] because he works hard and all that, but he's not as big a concern as a lot of people on their team," Babcock said.

It was a valid point and even Wilson agreed with it: "Honestly, it's a pretty true quote."

Babcock overlooked the old saw about NHL playoff heroes. The reason so many of them come from the ranks of the third and fourth lines or third defence pair is that the stars as often as not are smothered because everyone checks like a maniac, particularly in the first round.

Nazem Kadri and linemates Leo Komarov and Connor Brown did such a good job containing Alexander Ovechkin's line in the first period on Thursday that Trotz quickly used his home advantage of last line change to keep them away from his big scorer. Ditto for the Caps' fourth line of Wilson, Jay Beagle and Daniel Winnik, which not only provided the big goal but first kept Auston Matthews's line tied up and then switched to Kadri's line when Ovechkin needed a break.

Now the Leafs have to go into Game 2 facing a deep, veteran opponent that got a wake-up call in the first game. They will also have the same short-handed defence corps, as the injured Nikita Zaitsev is still unable to play. The Leafs did well without him but substitute Martin Marincin often looked overwhelmed and it was his failed clearing attempt that led to Wilson's goal.

But at least the Leafs are still talking a good game.

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"I think some guys getting their first game under their belt, I think you'll see a little bit more confidence out of us," forward James van Riemsdyk said. "I think there are some things we can clean up. It'll be another hard-fought game, and we'll see what happens."

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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