TORONTO -- The lessons learned in springtime are the harshest. And yet they're the ones that resonate the most.
The underdog Toronto Maple Leafs have gleaned an important one during their Stanley Cup playoffs opening-round series against the Washington Capitals, which is now a best-of-three heading into Game 5 on Friday at 7 p.m. ET. Being able to match the desperation level of a team on the ropes is the difference between the pretenders and the clubs that advance come playoff time.
The toughest pill to swallow was that everyone saw it coming.
On Wednesday morning, Toronto coach Mike Babcock invoked -- unsolicited -- the San Jose Sharks' Game 4 crush job on the Edmonton Oilers from the previous night, noting it was the perfect reminder of what can happen when a veteran team gets put in a corner at this time of year. It always comes out swinging.
How younger teams ready themselves for that tells the tale. The Oilers, like their young pals in Toronto, raced out to a 2-1 series lead and then basked in the media spotlight while the veteran Sharks were under the gun. Just as the top-seeded Capitals were feeling the heat too, after going down 2-1 in their series against Leafs.
"There's two parts to that equation -- one team relaxes and feels pretty good about themselves, talks to everybody, and they all tell you how great they're doing. And the other team gets prepared," said Babcock, somewhat regretfully. "We talked about that after Game 1, and after Game 2, and we'll continue to talk about it. It's so important that you get off to a good start [each game] and prepare to compete. They're going to compete; we have to compete.''
Veteran forward Brian Boyle, the player with the most postseason experience on Toronto's young roster, said he hoped that a late-season lesson that the Leafs learned at the hands of his former team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, would help them stay sharp. On April 6, a depleted Lightning squad, with its season still hanging in the balance, had completely outplayed Toronto on a night when the Leafs could have clinched a playoff berth. Instead, Toronto lost 4-1 and needed some dramatics on the final weekend of the regular season just to get into the postseason.
And yet despite that lesson from the Tampa game, and Tuesday night's San Jose rout over Edmonton, and everything Babcock told his team about what a dangerous animal Washington would be on Wednesday night -- well, the Capitals were up by three goals in Game 4 before you could blink.
The Leafs were left wondering: Why is it so hard to manufacture the same desperation when you're not the team on the ropes? What kind of mind trick must you teach yourself to feel a similar sense of urgency?
"It's tough. I think people have been trying to find that recipe forever," veteran Leafs winger Matt Martin said on Thursday. "Being the team with its back against the wall, like Washington was, you always seem to find a little more desperation than the team that's coming off a big win. But for whatever reason, we just didn't execute early in [Game 4]."
Martin maintains that it wasn't a case of the Leafs being lulled into a false sense of security.
"We expected them to push; they're the best team in hockey for a reason," said Martin. "We expected them to come out strong. ... But the goals they scored were [because of] us breaking down mentally and not executing on plays.''
So, did they finally learn their lesson?
"I think it's an experience we had to go through," said Martin. "I think maybe the hype around the team the last few days was a lot. These things are best-of-sevens for a reason. Nobody is going to remember that we were up 2-1 if these guys go on to win the Cup. We need to learn not to be satisfied with having two wins under our belt. We believe we can win this series.''
Martin said the Toronto players chatted among themselves for a few minutes after the game. The message was clear, to veteran and rookies alike.
"We've got to be more prepared," said rookie superstar Auston Matthews after Game 4. "We knew for them it was a do-or-die game. We've got to be prepared for that and come out on time, because I think when we start playing like we did down the stretch, we make it a lot harder for them.''
The Jedi mind tricks were on full display again Thursday before the team jetted back to Washington for Game 5. Babcock invoked the good old-time machine ploy in their morning meeting. He reminded his troops that if someone told them back before the season began they would not only make the playoffs but be tied 2-2 with the powerhouse Capitals midway through a playoff series, they would have been "doing cartwheels.''
He's right, of course. If you're the Leafs, the league's last-place team just a year ago, how do you not take stock for a moment and realize what an auspicious, unexpected position you're in before Game 5?
"Yeah, for sure,'' young star winger Mitch Marner said, acknowledging the merits of the time-machine brain tease. "They're a great team over there, everyone knows that. It's been a fun series so far. We just have to be ready at the start next game.''