Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski / USA TODAY Sports

The Exorcism

The Toronto Maple Leafs never take the easy way out. You know this, I know this, we all know this. We’ve watched this team go through insane peaks and valleys, of joy and despair (almost always ending in despair), year after year after year. For many, last night felt like it was going to be another step in that direction.

After all, the Leafs just needed to get two points in four games to make it into the playoffs. Or for two teams to each drop a pair of points each. Or a mix of both. But then games went exactly as the Islanders and Lightning needed them, and exactly as the Leafs didn’t.

Odds that were as high as 99% began to tumble. The chasing teams found themselves entering the weekend with weak opponents. The Leafs, with two teams that had just missed out on Presidents Trophy bids. Even when the Penguins confirmed a half empty roster would hit the ice, the masses still felt nervous. In fact, maybe even more so.

After all, Sidney Crosby is a Leafs (okay, an everybody) killer. Phil Kessel was still going to play too, and while he had yet to get his first point against Toronto since being traded, we had seen this song and dance before when he played against the Bruins as a Leaf. He was silent against them for years, then dragged them to the brink in their 2013 Playoff Series. He wasn’t always around for the spite games, but he was there for the big ones. You knew he was coming last night, and he did. With the shot attempts sitting at 12-3 Toronto, Phil found himself an opening, stepped into his trademark snapshot and, well, you know the rest.

Six minutes in. Any semblance of hype has just been dulled. Thankfully for the Leafs, that feeling didn’t last very long. Because just 29 seconds later…

First and foremost, that first touch, which was initially believed to be offside, was one of the single most impressive things I’ve ever seen in a hockey game. A little lucky, given the game of millimetres when angling a deflection, but peak JVR all the same. But it was perfect that it would be him; a player who some thought was one of Kessel’s passengers here was the one to make it very clear that this wasn’t going to be his night. Throughout the first period, Van Riemsdyk was buzzing; one could argue that was the best few minutes of hockey he’s played in his entire career.

The rest of the team looked up to the task too. The floodgates hadn’t opened yet, but the Leafs were playing with purpose, as if they knew tonight was their night and nothing was going to stop them. That is, until..

The sinking feeling was back, and now it was worse. For the third time in about as many weeks, Frederik Andersen was down, getting a backside to the head from Tom Sestito, a grinder who was only a handful of games removed from a four-game suspension for a reckless hit against the Winnipeg Jets. Andersen was clearly unable to stay in the game, and Curtis McElhinney stepped in. While McElhinney has been dependable in a few big games this year, you couldn’t help but feel like thing would fall apart.

But things went up before they went down. William Nylander, a player who has taken an infinitely long list of heat from media and fans throughout the season, threw a brilliant pass to a wide open Tyler Bozak to put the Leafs up by one. Another Kessel passenger, having the best year of his career in a completely different role.

That’s not to dump on Phil of course. He was undervalued by this city and it was amazing to see him head to Pittsburgh and immediately get a ring out of it. But all three players from that line of old have benefitted from redefinition, and the two that are still here were looking to make it apparent tonight that they could carry their own weight.

Naturally, Crosby came back around and tied the game a few minutes later, because he’s a mega-star player that will do those things. That wasn’t a moment that gave people too much pause; a goal from Sid feels like an inevitability, and it was better that he got it out of the way as a mid-second equalizer than as a late-third go-ahead tally.

But then came the phantom penalties, the bad ice, the bouncing pucks, the just barely missed opportunities. As Toronto pressed to go back ahead, they looked deserving but couldn’t get it right. An air of expectation built, but it was a smokey, dark fog. One that made you think something grim was about to come.

Bounce. Bounce. Slip. 3-2. A goal so crazy, so unlucky, that even I had a brief, brief moment of “this seems bad”. One that I haven’t had at any point this entire season, but with the Islanders having just finished a completely undeserved 4-2 win in New Jersey, it was hard to not give pause.

But nobody should go into those situations expecting the worst. Not the fans, not the staff, not the players. If the Leafs were going to going to win this game, they needed to focus on the process of how they’ve played, rather than what the scoreboard currently said.

Kasperi Kapanen got the memo.

Kapanen has been an incredible story this season. Some (myself strongly included), were incredibly skeptical of including him in the list of Toronto’s prospects that really mattered, as he had yet to rip apart a developmental league for an extended period of time in his career.

He’s shut us all up, at least as far as that goes. Don’t let the dime-a-dozeners tell you otherwise; he was a dominant force for the Toronto Marlies early in the season, nearly lost his year to a dirty hit, came back, and didn’t miss a beat.

But scoring at this level was a question, as he had gone pointless in his first fifteen NHL games. Granted, nine of them came on last year’s tank team, and his six games this year have come on the fourth line. Still, people wanted to see more.

A game-tying goal, one of the most important for the franchise in years, in the dying minutes of the third period against the team that traded him? Yeah, that sounds like the right time to get your first tally and point.

They still needed one more for peace of mind, but how do you top that?

Gardiner gets his redemption for the off-the-skate goal here, firing the shot that eventually makes it in. Had he been the one to score it, the balance of karma angle would have been good enough, but the deflection makes it so much better.

That Connor Brown ended up scoring the goal that sent the Leafs towards the playoffs for just the second time in the past thirteen years was extremely fitting. Brown has flown under the radar in an unprecedented group of star rookies, playing a middle six role that’s involved him blocking shots and intercepting passes just as often as he’s set up one timers and created plays.

Really, he’s done everything he possibly can to help this team. That’s been a trend for him his entire playing career, and the reason he’s made it to this stage. Brown’s a guy that has never, ever been given the benefit of the doubt by anybody other than his own management and coaches; outsiders have scoffed at him as too small, not fast enough, too sheltered, too unprepared, and just about anything in between. Because of this, he ended up falling to the Leafs in the 6th round of the 2012 draft. But it was far from a death sentence; he exited major junior as one of the OHL’s premier offensive talents. He came into the AHL and was one of the highest scoring young players from day one. He’s come up to the big show and repeatedly proven his salt.

He’s poised to be one fewer than 24 players under the age of 24 to hit 20 goals this year. It’s doubtful of the goals will be more important to the Toronto native than that one.

Before the final buzzer could sound, we were given two more layers of icing on an eclectic but ultimately happily accepted cake. In the final minute, McElhinney proved that he was the right goaltender to finish this game with a point-blank save on a Kessel pass to Crosby, which kept the game alive. Shortly afterward, Auston Matthews became the first rookie in Leafs history to score his 40th goal of the season, burying an empty netter.

34 with 3.4 remaining. Two goals ahead. Crisis averted. Time to get the party started and the X’s sharpened, with the Sunday game now only dictating the opponent, not the possibility of having one.

That game, through all its ups and downs, was one we’re not going to forget for a long time. Not just because of the fact they clinched, not just because they won, but how they clinched, and how they won.

The players sent to haunt them? They came close, but they were matched and exceeded, often by those whose stories were connected.

The underdogs? Incredibly eager. We haven’t even talked about how the best defensive pair last night was the much-maligned bruiser duo of Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak, who looked like completely different, extremely motivated players and they forechecked, made plays, and ultimately held the fort when it was most necessary. But beyond them, having the Browns, Kapanens, and McElhinney’s come up huge when needed most.

The moments that should have scarred them? Rebounded from.

The story line that was unfolding around them in other cities? Ignored.

These are the things that would have brought down “those Leafs”; teams of recent history that created this reputation of failure and collapse. But these Leafs aren’t those Leafs. Besides the fact they’re a mostly different cast created by a mostly different brass with a mostly different crest wearing a mostly different sweater, they’ve earned their way into where they are. They’ve routinely outplayed opponents, they’ve controlled the score sheet more than just about any team in the league, and while there have been some trials and tribulations along the way, there was always a feeling that things would come around for them as long as they continued to earn themselves those opportunities.

Last night, they did, and last night, they succeeded, brushing away the reputation of others to cement their own. This year, they’ve become the second team in the Cap Era to go from dead last to the postseason in a single year. What happens from here is basically found money, but they’ve earned their right to find it.

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  • Stan Smith

    Good write up Jeff, and you even managed to compliment Hunlack without having a “but” in there. I’m really hoping they can some through tonight and bring back the Battle of Ontario.

  • Harte of a Lion

    Jeff, let’s hope that the recent play of Polak and Hunwick is more than just a blip on the radar. In the event that management is unable to add another top four defenceman this off season, and none of Nielsen, Dermott, Valiev or Holl impresses enough at training camp to make the team, I am not adverse to bringing back “Hunlack” as our third pairing for next season.
    Based on the current pairings, the top pairing are 26 and 24 years old and both have the talent to improve. Our second pairing, (possibly the future #1) are both 22 years old.
    From the day we aquired Carrick in the second Winnick trade, I thought he was a steal and once he gets Babcock’s approval to push the pace a bit more, I’m certain he will prove to be an asset for years to come. He has shown his hockey intelligence this season and the offence will come.

    Go Leafs!