WASHINGTON — The Toronto Maple Leafs don't seem to care that they're young, inexperienced and not expected to topple the Washington Capitals.
It certainly hasn't mattered so far with the Leafs snatching Game 2 in double overtime on Saturday night 4-3 to even up their best-of-seven series at a game apiece. They nearly had Game 1, too, and have almost certainly struck fear in the hearts of a Capitals squad that's vying for its first Stanley Cup and suffered many post-season disappointments.
"I think we've proven to everybody that we can play with these guys," said Kasperi Kapanen, who scored twice in Game 2, including the double OT winner. "We're the underdogs for sure. But the way we've been playing — and I think we can be better in certain areas — we're going to give them a run for their money."
The Leafs head back to Toronto for Game 3 on Monday night feeling like they've got a shot to not only make some noise, but possibly even beat the best team in hockey during the regular season.
"We don't expect to just have an experience," said Frederik Andersen, who made 47 saves. "Everyone's talked about how it's been (unexpected) for us just to make the playoffs, but we want to do more."
More of the same and they've got a real chance of making that happen.
Andersen has been central to their efforts so far, his Game 2 performance equal to and perhaps even better than Braden Holtby, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner and another top contender this season. The 27-year-old had to be especially sharp early as the Caps stormed out of the gate and held the Leafs without a shot for the first 11 minutes.
Andersen made a left pad stop on a Brett Connolly breakaway shortly before James van Riemsdyk's game-opening goal. He kept shining into overtime, even denying Alex Ovechkin on another breakaway with 27 seconds left in the first period of "bonus hockey", as Jake Gardiner labelled it after the game.
"He was outstanding in Game 1 and obviously he was no slouch tonight," said Morgan Rielly, who scored the Leafs third goal, following up on a solid series-opening performance.
Rielly and Gardiner both logged more than 40 minutes in the win after Roman Polak went down with a season-ending injury (right leg) late in the second frame. The Leafs employed four defenders for much of the night with Martin Marincin clocking in at 27 minutes and Matt Hunwick logging 35 minutes of his own.
Leafs coach Mike Babcock was hopeful that Nikita Zaitsev would return from a suspected concussion for Game 3 and if not, the Leafs will turn to Alexey Marchenko to replace Polak. The 30-year-old's right leg crumpled awkwardly under his body after a collision with Caps defenceman Brooks Orpik.
Exactly half of the Leafs' 18 skaters came into these playoffs with not a single game of NHL post-season experience. Many, including Babcock, wondered how they would respond to the terrain — where the intensity dials up and there's little room to operate.
It hasn't appeared to affect the group much, if at all — Kapanen, who's logged only 17 NHL regular season games, the most recent example. The 20-year-old, who also scored the gold medal-winning overtime goal for Finland at the 2016 world junior championships, looked cool and comfortable in scoring a pair in Game 2.
On his first goal he calmly gained control of a Matt Martin feed with two Capitals lingering and stuffed a backhand through Holtby's pads. His overtime winner came off a brilliant feed from veteran Brian Boyle, who appeared like he would circle the goal, but instead quickly shuttled a backhand dish to Kapanen just above the goal-line.
Kapanen had won his first and only faceoff of the night a few moments earlier, his line among the fresher groups at that late stage of overtime.
Beyond Kapanen were improved Game 2 efforts from Auston Matthews and Zach Hyman and another sneaky effort from William Nylander, who had five shots and almost 70 per cent puck possession.
The trio of rookies were the Leafs most effective, especially as the game wore on.
Even another lost lead didn't ultimately deter Toronto, one that saw Nicklas Backstrom even the score at three with just over seven minutes left in regulation. The Leafs had already come back from a 2-1 deficit, with Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson both scoring on the power play for Washington, and then went back in front again on a power-play goal from Rielly.
In Game 1, the Leafs raced in front 2-0, only to lose in overtime. They left that game with a sense of confidence, however, this belief that they could hang with the Caps. That feeling grew a little more on Saturday night.
"We're going to get better and better in the series obviously as our confidence grows," Babcock said.
Added Kapanen: "I'm really excited to go to Toronto to see how the fans are going to be for our two games. It's going to be wild."