We’ve spent the last couple of months talking about “the prize”. The chosen one. Some call him McJesus, while those who consider themselves “professional” refer to him as Connor McDavid. We all knew he was going first overall, like, six years ago. Barring a massive lapse in transition, he is the National Hockey League’s next generational talent, and probably the guy to eventually chase Sidney Crosby off of the throne as king of the sport. On that note, I’d like to talk about the best Leafs game in the Crosby era.
It was April 6th, 2007. The Leafs have played a pretty solid season, hidden behind some disastrous goaltending. League average save percentages would have been enough to make them elite in goal differential, but instead, they got seventy two games of Andrew Raycroft.
But down the stretch, the Leafs kept scoring, and for whatever reason, pucks started going in at a lower frequency. Day by day, win by win, Toronto put themselves back in the playoff picture. Suddenly, games that seemed hopeless gained meaning, leaving them a final game against the Montreal Canadiens.
There were lots of implications in this game. If the Habs won, they were in the playoffs. Boom. Done. Locked in. The Leafs? They needed a win, and some support from the New Jersey Devils the following night. But the odds were in their favour; Saturday Night, at home, on CBC, against the arch rival. It doesn’t get anymore storybook Leafs than that.
The result? Insanity, as you’ll see above. Bates Battaglia put the Leafs up early. Chris Higgins made Raycroft look dumb. A failed pass by Mats Sundin slipped through Cristobal Huet. Alex Steen scored a by the book goal in the slot, and while it wasn’t amazing, his look of delight screamed “long-term member of the Leafs core”. In typical Raycroft fashion, he was pretty awful , and eventually was replaced with J.S. Aubin. The Leafs were down by two in the closing moments of the second, but Carlo Colaiacovo’s floater put them in striking distance.
The powerplay went to work early in the third period. Tomas Kaberle set up Bryan McCabe, as he always did, and tied the game. Just a few minutes later, he took a slapshot, which he never usually did, and gave his team the lead. The crowd went nuts. We all went nuts. It was the most fun that anybody had watching this team until the playoffs were finally clinched.
By that, I mean, six years later. The Leafs won, but the Devils lost the next day. The following season saw the wheels fall off of the core, as once again, shoddy goaltending made a good possession team (in an era where none of us were looking at this kind of stuff) look desperately in need of rebuilding. The Leafs ultimately got peanuts for everybody worthwhile and held on to all the wrong players, and haven’t been quite as good since.
I still remember that night though. I was at a friends house. When Colaiacovo started the comeback, we both ran around screaming. Every so often, I think about it, and when I passed by his house for the first time in a while yesterday afternoon, it made me feel something that I’ve lost.
Over the years, my interest in this team has evolved. I’ve gone from being a die hard fan, to someone who has lost all reason to directly root for the team, or any hockey team and instead only really wants to see them succeed because I know it will make the city happy. Many factors influenced this evolution, but one that we can all relate to is that with all of the constant disappointment that this team provides, it’s hard to be excited for anything. You know that no matter what, any time you get your hopes up, they’ll be shattered into pieces. That’s depressing, and ruins the value of entertainment.
Which brings me back to tonight, and back to our original topic. Yes, there’s a point to this extremely long introduction.
Just like on April 6th, 2007, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens will take each other on at the Air Canada Centre. The Circumstances are different; both teams know whether or not they’re going to make the playoffs. But that doesn’t mean that it’s any less important to the teams, and those who follow them.
Take the Habs for example. You can find their lineup on DailyFaceoff.com, as usual, and you’ll notice that despite it being the last game of the year, they’re still bringing out as many of their top players as the team doctors say that they can. But why? Because they still have a division title to clinch.
Amazingly, the Atlantic’s king will not be crowned until Game 82. Right now, the Habs have a two point edge on the Lightning, but a regulation loss and a Tampa Bay win will drop them to second based on regulation and overtime wins (ROW). Pride is at play, and more importantly, a more opportune spot in the bracket.
Carey Price, who will likely start in goal, is almost assuredly going to win the Vezina trophy, but securing a division championship for his team will forever cement this season in Montreal’s long history books, to go with the likes of Plante, Dryden, and Roy. That’s huge for him.
The Leafs (lines @ DailyFaceoff), on the other hand, are locked into their position entirely. They’ll be finishing in 27th place. This means that they’ll definitely draft in the top five. Best case, they win the lottery and pick first. Worst case, somebody below them wins and they pick fifth. Most likely, they’ll go up to the podium fourth. So, why does this matter to them?
For some of the players, it’s an individual thing. Casey Bailey is going to want his first goal. Guys like Joakim Lindstrom and David Booth are making their last highly public audition for a new job next year. Jonathan Bernier, likely to start is playing for either a raise or to pique the interest of a team that will trade for him. Colton Orr, who was called up the other day, might be playing in his last NHL game, and Eric Brewer, while less likely, may be in the same boat.
For the team itself, though? Like Dion Phaneuf suggested to a reporter after the loss to Columbus, losing in competitive sports sucks, whether you’re a millionaire or just want to show up your friends in the park. It’s been a rough year, and they’ll want to finish it with a smile on their faces, not with further frustration.
For the fans, this is a gigantic blessing. Many have been cheering against the team that they adore, knowing that losses this year will contribute to wins years from now. It’s the long con, but it wears out. People can lie and say they’re having fun watching the process unfold, but 5-0 blowouts are never fun to watch. Streaks where the team can’t score to save their life are not fun to watch. Falling behind forty seconds in isn’t fun to watch. Losing can be entertaining, but these haven’t been entertaining losses. They’ve been painful ones.
Tonight, for the first time in months, the entire Leafs fanbase can once again cheer for their team. A win doesn’t do any standings damage. It does what it’s asked of it in its purest form; it makes the fans happy and the players motivated. The icing on the cake?
It’s against the Habs. Most rivalries require teams to be good at the same time, but this is one that, over the past century or so, has been able to survive no matter what the circumstance. Something always drew it together, whether it was a battle of talent, culture, or history. There will never not be a time where these two teams don’t have something against each other; even if its just “we know we’re supposed to hate those guys, so screw those guys”.
As many sports fans will tell you, the greatest consolation prize when you’re unable to succeed is to impede the success of your biggest foes. While the Leafs didn’t make the playoffs in 2007, they stopped the Habs from doing it, and that was pretty great. Tonight (on CBC at 7PM), they can prevent them from winning the division, and possibly make you feel good about liking them for the first time in months.
If not, the draft lottery is in a couple of days. Go Leafs Go.