Leafs: So that’s what the playoffs are like

Jonathon Gatehouse on the fun and futility of Toronto’s playoff run

James Reimer reacts to the game winning goal during overtime in Game 7. (Charles Krupa/AP photo)

If will be of little comfort to disconsolate fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, but in the wake of a heartbreaking Game 7 overtime loss to the Boston Bruins, the old saw is as true as ever: Close only counts in horseshoes and hand-grenades.

Yes, the Buds, making their first playoff appearance in nine long years were tantalizingly, agonizingly, impossibly near—battling back from a 3-1 series deficit and standing on the cusp of victory having built a 4-1 lead halfway through the third period, only to see it slip away. First the Bruins’ Nathan Horton scored with a little over 10 minutes left to make it 4-2. Then Milan Lucic made it 4-3 with just 1:18 remaining. Then Patrice Bergeron tied the game with only 51 seconds on the clock.

And finally, iresistibly, inevitably, in overtime, after Toronto’s Joffrey Lupul had twice been denied on the doorstep, first by Tuukka Rask’s arm and then a few seconds later, his mask, the payoff came at the other end of the ice. A scrambley goalmouth sequence where Toronto failed to clear the loose puck and it again ended up on the stick of Bergeron and in the back of  net. And just like that, the season was over.

But while the manner in which the defeat came about stings, it won’t be what is remembered.  In the NHL playoffs, your team wins, or it loses. And even moral victories quickly fade.

(Pop quiz: How many games went to OT in the Leafs 2002 Conference Final against Carolina?

Answer: It doesn’t matter, they lost.)

What is clear is that after waiting 46 years and counting for a Stanley Cup, and finishing out of the playoffs every single season between the NHL’s last two lockouts, Toronto has once again discovered that even futility can be fun. These past two weeks when the Maple Leafs finally gave their fans a reason to care about spring hockey, the city came alive.  Blue and White sweaters were pulled out of the deepest recesses of closets, dusty flags reattached to car windows, and face-painted crowds gathered in bars and downtown streets to cheer and—for a little while at least—hope.

Up against the Bruins, Cup winners just two years ago and a team that has all but owned Toronto in regular season play over the past decade (28-17-7), it was never going to be easy. But a stirring 4-2 victory in Game 2 (on the heels of the 4-1 drubbing Boston handed them in the series opener) fanned the embers of playoff passion back to life.

In the hours before Game 3, Toronto’s first home playoff tilt in 3,289 days, the city took on a holiday feel with thousands of fans flooding the area around the Air Canada Centre. (Police eventually had to close off access to a packed plaza where the TV broadcast was being shown live on giant screens.) And inside the building the atmosphere was, for once, no less electric.  The rinkside platinum seats—$796.75 each, including tax and surcharge—were actually filled before the puck dropped. The pumped up crowd made noise without the score board’s urgings, booed villains like Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, and Mayor Rob Ford, and even looked the part, abandoning suits and ties in favour of Leafs jerseys and freebie team scarves. And late in the second period when 22-year-old defenceman Jake Gardiner, playing in just his second career post-season game, scored to half a two-goal deficit, the roof almost lifted off.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last. Just 50 seconds later, Bruins winger Nathan Horton snapped home a wrist shot to make it 3-1. And in the third Boston added two more for a 5-2 victory.

Game 4, two nights later, was closer, but no less disappointing for Leafs fans. After jumping out to a 2-0 lead in the first, Toronto gave up three straight in the second. A goal by Clarke MacArthur—reinserted into the line-up after watching the two previous matches from the press box—knotted the score at 3. And while the Leafs carried the play in the scoreless third, and through most of the overtime, it was Boston’s David Krechi who notched the winner—completing a hat trick—and providing his club with what seemed like a 3-1 stranglehold on the series.

But facing almost certain elimination—in 229 similar situations dating back to 1942, only 20 teams have comeback to win a best-of-seven—the Leafs found an extra gear. Suddenly playing a brand of swift, physical and defensively sound hockey, they outhustled the Bruins to a 2-1 victory in Boston, then did it again with an identical score in Toronto, setting up the Game 7 showdown.

In the end, the collapse on the doorstep of the second round can probably be attributed to inexperience. The Leafs, their playoff ranks swelled by AHL call-ups, finished the season as the youngest clubs in the league. While Boston, who won three Game 7s on their way to the 2011 Stanley Cup, boasted a roster with 1,273 games of playoff experience. (The Leafs’ total was 206 games, with 15 players having never before tasted the NHL post-season.)

What Toronto fans can take away from the bitter ending is that their team finally has a talented core—Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, James Van Riemsdyk, and Nazem Kadri up front, captain Dion Phaneuf, Cody Franson, and Jake Gardiner on the blue line and James Reimer in net. While for the first time in decades the Leafs’ farm system is supplying the kind of call-ups—Joe Colborne for example—who actually look like they can play with the big boys.

Could a championship lie in the not-too-distant future? Tim Leiweke, the newly hired CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment promised as much in a recent interview with Maclean’s. “I’m absolutely certain that there’s growth with the Maple Leafs, and it’s called the Stanley Cup.”

The pressure is officially on. After paying more than $1 billion for a 75 per cent interest in the club last spring, Rogers and Bell unceremoniously dumped President and GM Brian Burke, the outspoken face of the franchise, replacing him with his longtime assistant Dave Nonis. And the corporate suits have assured both their shareholders and the fans that more winning seasons are on the horizon. Profits are a given—the Leafs’ bottom line will grow even fatter with the 50/50 revenue split that Gary Bettman wrested from the players, and a 2013-14 team salary cap of $63.4 million, $7 million less than this season. But expectations also have a way of growing exponentially. By this time next year, the just-happy-to-be-here attitude that infected Toronto fans and the media will be long gone. And a first-round exit—no matter how dramatic—won’t go down so easily.

In the dressing room following the Game 3 loss, Cody Franson—at age 25, with 16 prior playoff appearances, what passes as a veteran presence on the club—tried to explain the proper mindset for today’s NHL. “You think about your mistakes for 10 minutes and then you try to flush it as fast as you can,” he said. “And try to keep positive momentum and learn from what we just did.”

In Game 7, Franson practiced what he preached, handing Boston the game opening goal on a brutal turnover, then redeeming himself in short order with two of his own.

It was close, but no cigar.


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