TORONTO—The air was bittersweet in the Toronto Maple Leafs' dressing room after a season-ending loss last night.
Bitter from the end result of Game 6—a 2-1 overtime defeat which ended a closely-matched first-round series with the heavily-favoured Washington Capitals.
Sweet for players and their head coach as they reflected on a historic season which shattered expectations in almost every way imaginable.
“The loss is tough, for sure,” said 23-year-old Morgan Rielly, his face marked by cuts and bruising following the loss which gave Washington a 4-2 series win.
“But when we got in here and looked at one another [after the game], there's a lot of pride that can be taken,” he noted.
“This is just a step in the right direction,” Rielly added.
“We're going to continue to grow, continue to get better, and see how far we can take it.”
The Leafs made a 26-point leap in the standings during the regular season as they jumped from last place in the NHL to the post-season, and then a near take-down of the best team in hockey.
All six games against the Caps were decided by a goal, with five of the six ending in OT.
Toronto finished with two fewer goals (16-18) and two more shots (213-211).
It was the Leafs' young talent that emerged most brightly, beginning with Auston Matthews, who became only the second teenager ever after Wendel Clark to score in four-straight playoff games.
His line, which included fellow rookies William Nylander and Zach Hyman, easily was the club's most dangerous against Washington—a blur of speed, skill, energy, and enthusiasm.
Only after Matthews scored the opening goal in Game 6 did the Caps' experience perhaps show itself as the club rallied to tie it and then win it on a pair of goals by Marcus Johansson.
Ten Leafs in all made their playoff debuts in this series compared to just one (Brett Connolly) for Washington.
Without getting into specifics, Leafs' coach Mike Babcock said he learned a lot about his team in how they pushed Washington so close to the brink.
“Until you've been through the playoffs with players, you don't really know the level of the player you have,” Babcock noted, expressing pride at what his team accomplished.
Babcock said he wasn't even certain that Mitch Marner, one of three Leaf rookies to surpass 60 points, would make the team at training camp.
“Our young guys are good,” he ultimately concluded.
Breaking records one after another, Toronto's historic rookie class will be most remembered in time.
But the club also had significant years of development from Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, Rielly, and Frederik Andersen, who was a star with 34 saves in Game 6 and established himself as a viable No. 1 during the regular season.
With those vets and emerging young players, the Leafs have established a core they hope will help them rise to the level of a team like Washington, which has been contending for Stanley Cups (though, as yet, failing) for almost a decade.
“They've got something to be very very excited [about] and I'll tell you, they pushed us and they hardened us in this series,” said Capitals' head coach Barry Trotz.
After the game, Trotz told Babcock: “Man, you've done a fantastic job.”
Toronto's coach and brass only can hope this is just the start; that the experience of a razor-thin first playoff series will benefit the group next season and down the line after that.
The readiness of rookies like Matthews, Marner, and Nylander to be impact players already makes the window for Cup contention appear as though it just could come a lot sooner than most expected.
If not next season, then the one after that certainly.
Kadri thought his team proved it could play with the “best teams” in pushing Washington so hard.
“We've still got a ways to go," Kadri said of becoming a top team. ”We're climbing, though. We're on our way up.
“The future's bright for us.”
Rielly believed the playoff experience offered lessons in what it was like to play a quality team six times and thrive in the intense post-season atmosphere.
“It's just added motivation because we want to be in this situation every year, where we're playing in the playoffs and winning series and moving on and continuing playing deep into the off-season,” he remarked.
“I think we definitely turned a lot of heads with where we were and where we are now,” said Matthews.
“For us, we definitely want to be in the same situation we are now next year, but hopefully a different outcome.”
Elsewhere in the NHL playoffs, Ottawa beat Boston 3-2 (OT) to win that series 4-2.