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Pierre LeBrun

TSN Hockey Insider

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TORONTO -- How are the Toronto Maple Leafs doing it?

The hockey world is buzzing in the wake of the underdog, baby-faced Leafs arriving home with a road split with the powerhouse Washington Capitals ahead of what should be a madhouse at the Air Canada Centre for Game 3 Monday night.

I asked a few NHL coaches to break down just how the Leafs are hanging in after a pair of overtime games with heavily favored Washington.

"Speed, quickness," began a Western Conference head coach over the phone Sunday. "Quickness on puck movement, quickness on the forecheck, quickness on the puck protection; they're giving them fits. They're using their quickness in every zone to disrupt Washington's game.

"Listen, Washington is a great hockey club, but they're not the quickest team in the league," he added. "And the Maple Leafs are using the quickness they have, they have a lot of foot speed and they're using it. They're constantly putting pressure on Washington all over the ice. Toronto is so well-coached as far as puck support that Washington can't get it stopped in the offensive zone -- Toronto exits too quickly. Everything they're doing, from play without the puck and play with the puck; it's got quickness in it and it's really giving Washington a challenge."

An Eastern Conference head coach echoed that speed is the difference.

"[The Caps are] a structured team, they're experienced, they've got moxie, and I think they're heavy, probably the heaviest team in the East," said the coach over the phone. "But the speed factor has given them problems, like it did with Pittsburgh last year, where there's no time and space."

Another Eastern Conference head coach, via text message Sunday, said the Leafs were doing a "disciplined job of getting pucks in and making Wash's D have to go back for pucks. They are dumping intelligently to areas where their speed is forechecking! Using five guys on the forecheck [their weak-side D is going down the wall hard] creates o-zone time, makes Washington's studs play in their zone. Which sucks for them.''

In the meantime, when the Caps have broken through with scoring chances, Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen has been dynamite. A Western Conference GM said before the series that Andersen would need to put up a .940 save percentage for the Leafs to have a chance at the upset. Andersen has stopped 88 of 94 shots for a .936 save percentage. Close enough.

"The scary thing is in the 3rd and OT of Game 2, he was getting better and better, and it looked easier," the second Eastern Conference coach said via text. "He has been the best player in the series -- not even close."

Added another Western Conference head coach via text message Sunday: "Both teams [are] depending on outstanding skill levels and competing hard, but what it comes down to for me is a combination of Andersen making point-blank saves and Washington not capitalizing on chances."

But why isn't Washington taking more advantage of the Leafs' Achilles' heel, their blue-line corps?

"It's not the weakest part of their game if you don't get them to stop" moving by slowing down the play, said the first Western Conference coach. "It's their puck support -- there's always someone in the vicinity helping them out. Their puck support to get themselves out of trouble has been terrific. Washington can't get their game unloaded on them because of that Leafs' quickness. Just watch how quick Toronto's D gets the puck in the hands of the forwards right away. So, Washington's size and ability to protect the puck just hasn't been a major factor yet.''

Added the first Eastern Conference head coach: "We haven't really seen Washington hem the Leafs into their zone that much; like, make Toronto defend for a long period of time. I've been surprised so far that we haven't seen Washington possess the puck more and make Toronto defend. It's almost been like a track meet. A lot of Washington's offense so far has been [power play] or rush plays as opposed to long, strong, heavy shifts that probably I think would give Toronto trouble."

The coach then paused and said the really surprising thing is that the Leafs aren't just hanging in against the Presidents' Trophy winners.

"I think Toronto has really dictated the series," he said. "The series has gone, so far, to Toronto's strengths: speed, up and down. The Leafs are dictating how the games are played."

And, finally, the kids are showing their lessons learned.

"The other thing with the Leafs, I would say, is that they had to play a lot of mature hockey towards the end of the year and it's showing up now," said the first Western Conference coach. "They got a lot of maturity in their game now and it's showing up. It's making for a great series because of it."

It's actually not that shocking, said a third Eastern Conference head coach.

"I think Toronto right now is the third-most talented team in the East," the coach said Sunday over the phone. "Now, they're young, but who cares? That was a tough draw for Washington. Outside of Pittsburgh and Washington, to me the Leafs are the third-most talented group in the East. Their D aren't great, but they're all good skaters and they can gap well the way [coach Mike Babcock] likes to gap. As a forward group, boy, I would put them up with anybody. They can go depth for depth up front with Washington. They're one of the few teams that can go line for line with Washington.

"I know when we played them, I thought Toronto was a matchup nightmare because you couldn't match them line for line," added the Eastern coach. "So, to me, what's happened so far in that series of how representative of how close they are. I expect the Leafs to be an Eastern Conference final team a year from now."

A year from now? The Leafs are giving their fans plenty to believe in -- and the Caps fits -- in the here and now.