Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
It’s the playoffs, the Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t show up on time, they briefly started with an offensive explosion, then came the shaky calls and the stupid penalties and the big non-existent stoppage when it was the no longer necessary. Now they are embarrassed, distraught and looking over their shoulders at the ghosts.
Yeah, I’ll stop. You have heard it all. It’s the same old story.
The difference here is the timing. For all of the Leafs’ recent history of playoff misery, they’ve generally saved the worst for last. They look OK in the first few games, sometimes much better than OK, but then it all goes downhill as the series progresses. This year, they wasted no time.
Depending on your perspective, this could be a very bad sign. It could also be a sign that the script has already switched. This team had better hope so.
If they needed a revival, they got one on a Tuesday night. It’s hard to understand how they can could needed it, having waited a year to get back to the only hockey that matters. They knew they would get a rematch with the Lightning for months. They knew they would have home ice cream for weeks. And they all know what’s at stake, for the players and the coaches and for the whole organization. This time, for once, you at least knew they would be ready to go. It was only then that the puck fell, and they absolutely did not.
So good, they needed a wake-up call. Now they better be awake. Because there are two ways to do it.
The first is that this game ends up being one that pushes the dragon. The Leafs are dropping any pretense that they can do it the easy way, they’re pushing and they’re getting serious. Most pundits picked them to win this series because, at least on paper, they’re better. So now they’re waking up, they’re playing this way, they’re winning Game 2 and they’re picking up the momentum in Tampa. And this time, for the first time in the Sheldon Keefe era, they don’t immediately release the accelerator pedal as soon as they get some traction. This time, they finish the job and head to Boston with a sense of swagger that, thankfully, ultimately feels somewhat earned.
And when it’s all over, we watch Game 1 and say: Lesson learned. That game, that embarrassing night when they were booed off their own ice after another playoff meltdown, was when it finally clicked. They found no excuses. They did not complain about the penalty of the match. They didn’t slouch, sulk, or pity themselves. They heard the doubters, they took it personally and they fought back. They needed one more punch to the jaw to invoke that sense of pride, they got it, and the rest was history.
It could happen. If you take a step back from all the Leafs baggage and look at this from afar, it seems totally plausible. You see this stuff all the time in sports. The night before the 2004 Red Sox kicked off their 3-0 comeback to beat the Yankees on their way to ending their championship drought, they gave up 19 points and we laughed at the same old Sox. You never know which scar will be the last, at least for a little while.
This Leafs team is absolutely good enough to write this history. The talent has always been there. Management should be. The coaching, the management, the depth… I mean, there are teams that would trade their situation for Toronto’s. Many of them.
And say what you will about the results, but there wasn’t much doubt or doubt from the bosses. Kyle Dubas has bet everything on this group: the future, the budget, his own reputation and his career. He fed them, defended them, paid them and praised them. Pampered them, some would say. If they’re finally going to pay it back, well, surely the story needs to have a little more adversity before it gets to the good stuff.
Maybe that’s what we saw on Tuesday. It might be. You don’t even have to squint to see it.
But there’s also the second way it could happen: badly.
It could mean many things. It could be the Core leaving, or the Stars collapsing, or the Lightning simply being the better team. It could also be that the Leafs play well the rest of the way and still lose, because of goaltending or rebounds or whatever. It can be many things.
But here’s the point: those details don’t matter. No more. This is what emerges from a disastrous Game 1. There are no more style points. It won’t be like last year, where they lost but still got credit for giving the Lightning a streak. When you don’t show the first major game you’ve played in 12 months, you no longer play the “no more respect in the handshake line” card. No more press conferences about staying the course. Those days are over.
I can’t speak remotely for all Leaf fans, but I hear more than a few, and I’ve been trying to sound the alarm for a year or two: something is changing. For much of the league’s most loyal fanbase, the past few years have done damage in a different way than Ballard, JFJ and Burke. It’s not permanent damage, at least not necessarily, but it should still be of concern to the franchise.
Leaf fans want to love this team. They want to see them reach their potential and earn something meaningful. They want to celebrate them and buy them beers and build them statues. But they are also ready to turn them on. The patience meter is as low as I’ve ever seen. And if Tuesday was any sign of how this series will go, then it’s going to get very ugly in Toronto, in a way that a layoff here or a trade there might not be enough to calm down.
So these are the issues. Tuesday night was the turning point, when this not-so-young squad finally regained their pride and learned that final lesson in what it takes to be a true competitor. Or it wasn’t, and instead it was just this version of the Leafs being themselves, like it always was, like it always will be. If so, when the streak is over, it will all explode really nicely, in a way that will be long remembered by those players.
No more in between. No need to go back. After the first game, even the most passionate fan can’t buy this story anymore.
Two roads. Your choice, boys. Let’s see what you have.
(Photo: Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)