The Toronto Maple Leafs got a dose of reality Wednesday night when the Washington Capitals dished them a 5-4 loss in Game 4 of this opening round series.
The cold, hard fact is this is Washington's series to lose, and they have enough depth to pull out must-win games on the road.
Tom Wilson's heroics in Game 4 were a statement: The Capitals won't be messed with. Wilson was hitting everyone in sight. In the 1st period he hunted down Morgan Rielly, who suffered a bloodied lip from the hit, before turning around and racing down the rink to give his team a 3-1 lead.
The Maple Leafs now need to a make a statement of their own, and it needs to come in the form of offense from 19-year-old Auston Matthews and his young group of linemates. As the physicality in this series intensifies each game, Matthews, William Nylander and Zach Hyman will need to weather the storm and focus on putting the puck in the net. It's what they did all year for their team, but can they handle this new postseason pressure?
Pressure was solely on Capitals
Going into this series, the pressure was entirely on Washington. Stars Alexander Ovechkin and Braden Holtby probably felt it more than anyone. Their perennial playoff hopes have been routinely dashed, and an opening round series against an upstart Leafs team is not something they could afford to overlook.
But then, suddenly, they were down 2-1 to Mike Babcock's well-coached squad. The Caps answered with powerful offensive starts in Games 3 and 4. It wasn't enough in Game 3 as the Leafs clawed back and won in overtime, and the Caps barely survived the Leafs in Game 4. The Maple Leafs' resilience is a powerful weapon, and everyone knows Babcock is behind it.
This is real
Now, the Maple Leafs, who weren't supposed to have a chance, can put the President's Trophy winners on the brink of elimination, and they're likely feeling pressure they never thought they would.
Things are starting to get real.
You can't call this a "bonus" playoff appearance for the young Toronto group anymore. Each night the Leafs are revealing how good they are as they go toe-to-toe with the team that ran away with the regular season title. This is a legitimate playoff series now, whether Babcock and his team will admit it -- the pressure is on them not to turn over and let the Capitals roll on.
Their will to come back against a desperate Capitals team in Game 4 must keep them rolling into the next contest.
Game 5 is 7 p.m. Friday in Washington.
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