April 9, 2017, by Darren Clarke
Never underestimate this team.
Few moments in life are lonelier than the moments that follow accidentally directing a puck into your own net. The degree of loneliness varies upon the context it happens in so you can imagine how Jake Gardiner felt, with the playoffs suddenly in doubt, in a 2-2 game against a very good team, after having directed the puck through Curtis Mcelhinney’s pads into his own net with his skate. That ain’t a monkey on your back, that ain’t even King Kong, that’s the entire overly fatalistic Leaf Nation in the proverbial, “18-wheeler,” looking for a good cliff to drive off of while wailing that the end’s not near, it’s here. But what we Leaf fans should have learned by now is this- Never underestimate this team.
What the Leafs accomplished this season won’t be defined by how they do in the playoffs but rather what got them there, and all that stuff- Joy for the game, imaginative hockey, perseverance, discipline, and an absolute disregard for the fragile emotional calamity that is the Leaf Nation, was on display last night in their home win against Pittsburgh. More than just tuning out the fans and media this team actually reshaped the sensibilities of these two often intellectually challenged entities. This team got the media and its’ fan to do that which it is most reluctant to do- To stand down.
Too often in the past management and players seemed to have a kind of crazy symbiotic relationship wherein the team seemed to be fatally attached to the medias aggressive ignorance and the fans’ need to hyperventilate into a paper bag every time it was suggested they might be running low on paper bags. Let’s look at the media- No matter how many pairs of glasses Hockey Night in Canada’s Nick Kypreos wears (even at the same time), no matter how many Marlboro-man-like-serious faces he employees while relaying information, there is no way to hide the lack of insight that information provides; on TSN the often times unoriginal and incestuous jocularity offered by their Overdrive Team and $1 might get you a can of pop but it isn’t going to get any closer to understanding anything about the art of winning hockey games; Sportsnet’s Doug Maclean might be an okay guy to be on a fishing trip with for three hours, but anything beyond three hours and/or if he starts talking knowingly about hockey and you would want to start thinking about throwing him overboard; and on the nations broadcaster, the CBC, Don Cherry, a sad, angry, Kingston-centric man, despite (and perhaps because of) a narrow world view has cultivated a legion of people parroting his particular brand of won’t-actually-work-in-real-life (i.e. check how his Junior A Team did) cockamamie, cock-a-doodle-doo. These aren’t people you can win with, these are people you win in spite of. And it has been challenging for previous regimes to overcome the unintelligible, toxic, noise created by the media inflaming an already inflamed fanbase. In short, this is the kind of stuff that apparently drove former Leaf GM Brian Burke to stop tying his tie for fear he might hang himself with it.
But along came Brendan Shanahan and everything changed. The media no longer had inside stories of what was going on with the Leafs in terms of management decisions and player particulars. The more Brendan Shanahan shaped the team the more locked down things got. Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock not only brought impressive resumes to the Leafs they both wield strong enough intellects and wills to only answer questions when they want to and how they want to. Essentially the Leaf management under Brendan Shanahan has given the Leaf Nation that which it needed most- not tough love, Brian Burke tried that and in his own words it ended up going off a cliff, but rather the Leaf management team has provided us with a collection of people aligned in appearing to be both entirely great at what they do and entirely disinterested in how we feel about it. Yes, they honour the fans and the legacy of the team quite thoughtfully, bringing Dave Keon back into the fold would be a prime example of that. But when it comes to building and maintaining their current on ice product, the fans and the media aren’t invited to the party. Finally.
Back to the game.
Jake Gardiner had just directed a puck into his own net. The Leafs number one goalie was injured earlier in the game by the least skilled hockey player in the NHL and AHL (or your Wednesday night pickup league), Tom Sestito. So now, with their backup goalie between the pipes the team faced the real possibility of continuing the week’s collapse, missing the playoffs, and having their fans jumping off buildings throughout the Greater Toronto Area. But, this team did what it has done all year- it ignored us. Yes, the Leafs ignored you and I, wherever we might be, shoulders slumped, terrible memories flickering in our heads, imagining the ridicule we would would be subjected to by Hab fans on our Facebook walls, they ignored us and did what they do, they defined themselves by playing to the challenge instead of against it.
It took a few minutes though.
After going down 3-2, with only three-quarters of a period remaining, the Leafs did bend, appearing adrift, unengaged, and simply a bit lost. A bit lost but not panicked, bent but not broken. Minutes later the Leafs had got back in the saddle. The once wayward group began to play more urgently and more thoughtfully. While the tying goal didn’t come immediately as the third period progressed the best reason for the Leaf Nation to love their team, its’ core of wildly talented, wildly imaginative, incredibly fun to watch hockey players, had started to regain their mojo.
I was at a tiny, incredibly orange, bar in the North End of St. Catharines called Fat Louie’s (great wings, get yourself some if you live around here) with some friends to watch the game. This is something the past decade of disappointment had robbed Southern Ontario of- The communal art of cheering on the home team. I love the Blue Jays, I love the Raptors, but the Leafs, hockey, are right smack dab in the middle of me. Nothing beats living or dying with the Leafs, particularly when living seems like an actual possibility.
The escalating sense of promise finally blossomed with five minutes and change remaining in the third. First, Matt Hunwick provided a sweet feed to Kasperi Kapanen to not only tie the game but provide some counterbalancing ju-ju for the man he was traded for, ex-Leaf Phil Kessel’s goal earlier in the game. Emboldened further now the Leafs continued to create quality chances- William Nylander was particularly sublime this night, water bugging around the ice brilliantly, setting up teammates with great pass after great pass, Auston Matthews was terrific with lots of jump and hockey playing charisma, Nazem Kadri was putting the longest stick in the NHL to good use. Good stuff was happening.
The good stuff culminated in a great, high slot, deflection by Connor Brown that wobbled top shelf over Marc-Andre Fleury’s left shoulder. 4-3 Leafs. The little orange bar erupted. I yelled and shamelessly fist pumped, “Yeahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!” as the great play-by-play man Joe Bowen yelled, “Conor Brown! The little leprechaun has found his pot of gold!”
But the Leafs would need a great save and a ballsy goal to get decidedly on the good foot and into the playoffs. The great save came with 49 seconds to play and the Pens goalie pulled. It came with the usually reliable Nikita Zaitsev showing a little of his inexperience in failing to recognize where Sidney Crosby, a pretty good hockey player, was on the ice. Phil Kessel made a fine cross crease pass that found Crosby wide open mere feet away from the unattended gaping twine of the left side of the net. Crosby didn’t hesitate, one timing a shot on the ice towards the open goal only to have Curtis Mcelhinney, as if shot out of a cannon, suddenly close the gap and prevent the puck from entering the net with his left pad, causing Joe Bowen to once again sum it up for us better than we could have imagined, “Holy Mackinaw! Holy Mcelhinney!”.
Time passed by slowly with the Pens goalie pulled. With the extra attacker Pittsburgh gamely swarmed in the Leafs end until, with just under fourteen seconds remaining, another Sidney Crosby shot, taken from pretty much the same location on the ice as the one stopped by Mcelhinney earlier, was inadvertently blocked by the skate of teammate Conor Sheary. The puck deflected onto Auston Matthews stick. Matthews skated the puck out of his defensive zone and, just a few strides away from the red line, shot into the open net. The puck arrived with some speed into the center of the next and chimed back out as the Leaf Nations celebrated the lack of need for a brown paper bag.
5-3 Leafs win.
After Matthews had scored somebody at the bar mentioned that Matthews should have ensured he gained the red line before shooting so as to avoid the risk of icing, I responded, “He wasn’t trying to score, he was scoring.”
Never underestimate this team. And never underestimate how relieved Jake Gardiner felt after that game.