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Even versus NHL's best, Maple Leafs' rookies continue to astound

April 18, 2017 2:28 AM
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Even versus NHL's best, Maple Leafs' rookies continue to astound

TORONTO — One step closer to the near impossible, these Maple Leaf kids continue on this remarkable climb. With little seemingly phasing them in this ever-so-tight playoff series with the Washington Capitals.

Three games in, three overtime games, and almost nothing separates the Maple Leafs and the Capitals — except a power play goal by Tyler Bozak in the second minute of overtime, giving Toronto a 4-3 win and a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.

The overtime goal came from a veteran. Just about everything else the Leafs accomplished came from their amazing group of kids. They just keep battling, keep making a difference. Every game. Every night.

With Washington, if the 29-year-old Nick Backstrom isn’t making plays, or the 31-year old Alexander Ovechkin isn’t one-timing the puck or 24-year-old Evgeny Kuznetzov isn’t doing the electrifying, not much else is happening for the Capitals.

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It’s different for the Leafs, which makes this series both so fascinating and eye-opening.

Auston Matthews turns 20 in September. He scored his first Stanley Cup goal Monday night in Game 3, probably could have had two more, and set up his first playoff goal a period later. It was Auston Night in Canada.

William Nylander turns 21 next month. He scored his first Stanley Cup goal Monday night. That goal was made possible by the corner work of the ancient rookie, Zach Hyman. The Mike Babcock favourite turns 25 in June. That was his first playoff point.

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This series is all about firsts for the young Leafs. The first playoff series — a real series that comes after an 82-game schedule — in 13 years. First playoff goals for Kasperi Kapanen, two of them, for the kid who spent most of the season in the American League. He's still 20.

Mitch Marner can call himself a teenager, at least for three more weeks, and while not found prominently in the boxscore, he was certainly prominent against the Capitals. In about a one-minute period in the first period, Marner was involved in two different 2-on-1 breakaways, one with James van Riemsdyk, the other with Bozak. And then a play that had game-changer look all over it, came in the second period. Rookie Nikita Zaitsev, aren’t they all, threw a puck up ice that Marner has a breakaway opportunity on.

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Only Braden Holtby, the usually excellent Washington goalie, raced out to play the loose puck. Marner beat the sprawling Holtby to the puck, and only had to manipulate the puck past the goalie for an easy, wide-open empty-net goal.

Somehow the diving Holtby reached out and got the puck off Marner to break up what looked an easy play. That came with the score 3-1, right after the Leafs had killed a two-man disadvantage.

That wasn’t the only thing Marner did. He was dangerous all night long.

Only the Leaf kids — and this rejuvenated group of seniors in their 20s — never stopped. With Connor Brown and Leo Komorov doing the screen work, a long wrist shot by Nazem Kadri banked off Brooks Orpik’s leg and past Holtby: 3-2 Washington.

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That was first playoff point for Brown, the 23-year-old freshman. The goal came at 15:13 of the second period and, in the final minute, it was the only prominent all-rookie line in the NHL doing what they do best.

A dump-in pitted Hyman against the veteran Orpik, who had additional help from Kevin Shattenkirk. Hyman tied up both of them, allowing Matthews to get the puck. He found Nylander all alone in and a shot and rebound later the game was tied heading into the third period.

Not all went the way of the Leaf rookies, but then again, against a team this deep, and skilled, how could it?

Zaitsev, making his playoff debut after missing time due to a suspected concussion, had a difficult beginning. He failed to cover Backstrom on the first goal, a pass across from defenceman Nate Schmidt. He then had some coverage mistakes but recovered enough to settle down and play a sound game.

The Leafs had seven rookies in the lineup for Game 3; Washington had none.

None of the seven, except for Zaitsev’s first few minutes, looked in any way out of place. There is a lot of series left to be played here and no fear at all that Toronto’s best can’t compete against Ovechkin, Backstrom and the rest of the NHL’s best team.

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