WASHINGTON, D.C. — The roaring of the crowd reverberated down the tunnel, echoing all the way to the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins‘ locker room.
“I just remember the energy was insane,” recalled Colby Armstrong, who was playing that night in Ottawa.
“All those young guys, we had no clue,” said Armstrong, who played 476 NHL games. “We were probably just like the Leafs.”
The current baby-faced Toronto Maple Leafs — who resume their series with the Washington Capitals on Saturday, down 1-0 — could be compared to that inexperienced Pittsburgh team (as well as a young Chicago Blackhawks team of the same era) because they boast off-the-charts, high-end raw talent. For the Leafs, it’s rookie of the year Auston Matthews and fellow rookie sensations Mitch Marner and William Nylander.
The 2006-07 Penguins surprised by collecting 105 points and making the playoffs after being the worst team in the conference the previous season. Similarly, the Leafs finished 30th last season — earning the No. 1 pick in the draft that yielded budding superstar Matthews — and surprised by making the playoffs.
“They worked us,” Armstrong recalled. “They worked us hard.”
But a funny thing happened during a decisive five-game Ottawa victory: the Penguins realized they belonged.
“I just remember after the playoffs, after we got worked, we were like, ‘Holy man, we’re going to be pretty good next year,'” said Armstrong, who is now a broadcast analyst.
And they were. The next season, the Penguins made it all the way to the finals before losing to the Detroit Red Wings — but then won a Cup over the Wings the following spring, in 2009.
Armstrong believes the kind of culture change that took place seemingly overnight in Pittsburgh might be even more accelerated with the Leafs, thanks in large part to the role of head coach Mike Babcock, considered one of the best in the business.
And regardless of the outcome of this current series with the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals, that culture is going to continue to evolve, Armstrong predicted.
“I think they’re probably just like, ‘Man, we’re in the playoffs,'” Armstrong said. “They’re not thinking about, ‘Oh, this is going to be tough,’ they’re thinking, ‘Holy crap, we’re in the playoffs and we’ve got a chance to play for the Cup, so let’s play awesome.'”
But did the Leafs blow their one chance to put a scratch on a deep, powerful Caps machine when they blew a 2-0 first-period lead in Game 1? If so, then the Leafs will have to make the best of what could be a short series, soaking up all of the experience — the Capitals boast almost five times as much playoff experience as the Leafs — and hope it translates into something formidable as it did for the Penguins and Blackhawks, who have won five Cups between them since 2009.
But what if the Leafs are really as good as they showed in Game 1, and we’re seeing the start of big things?
“I think some guys getting their first game under their belt, I think you’ll see a little bit more confidence out of us,” said Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk, who qualifies as old and grizzled at age 27 and having played in 47 postseason games.
We know the Capitals have lots more to show.
The Leafs? Well, that’s an enticing unknown.