Saturday, April 27, 2013

At Last

 Editor's note: This originally ran as the Cold As Ice column on Popblerd.

Nine years is a long time. We’ve seen a slew of revolutionary technological advancements since 2004: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, the iPad, super-fast smartphones. My youngest daughter was born that March and is now 9. And next week, the Toronto Maple Leafs will play their first playoff game since May 4, 2004. For Leafs fans like me, nine years has felt like 90 (and fans up there are paying big bucks for playoff tickets).

The Leafs were a perennial playoff team at that point, finishing the regular season with 103 points, just one behind the Northeast Division winning Boston Bruins. Toronto had a veteran-laden squad, with captain Mats Sundin leading a team that featured the likes of Ed Belfour, Brian Leetch, Joe Nieuwendyk, Alex Mogilny and Gary Roberts. But they were knocked off in 6 games in the second round by the Philadelphia Flyers. Nobody in Toronto figured the Leafs would be out of the playoffs for one more year, let alone nine. But the 2004-2005 season was wiped out by a lockout, and when the NHL returned, a salary cap was in place that took away the Leafs’ deep-pocketed ability to sign free agents to big contracts. The pricey veterans from their last playoff either retired or weren’t re-signed, and Toronto entered into an era of mediocrity that was all too familiar to longtime fans such as myself who had witnessed the team’s awful 1980s decade.

In recent years, the Leafs have suffered through the many missteps of a few different general managers, including the outspoken Brian Burke, who was hired in 2008 but wasn’t able to deliver on the big promises of toughness and contention for a Stanley Cup. Burke was fired just before this abbreviated 48-game season (due to yet another lockout), and he no doubt was shaking his head as he watched the team he assembled finally securing a playoff spot. Led by goalie James Reimer and much maligned captain Dion Phaneuf and sniper Phil Kessel, the Leafs clinched a playoff spot last Saturday with a win over Ottawa. Much credit should be given to coach Randy Carlyle, who was hired last season after his predecessor Ron Wilson saw the team get off to a decent start but collapse in February and March.

Carlyle, who won a Cup with Anaheim in 2007, is a defensive-minded coach who is a big believer in line-matching and the need to put goons on the ice to maintain a sense of team toughness. Leafs fans have puzzled over some of his lineup decisions this season, but there’s no denying the results. Sure, it’s a short season, but who cares? I’m just happy they’re in the postseason once again. I don’t have high hopes, but it’ll provide good experience for the Leafs’ young players and if they win a round, great.

It’s still unclear who Toronto will play in the first round, but I’m hoping it’s Montreal instead of Boston. The Leafs match up better against the smaller Canadiens as opposed to the Bruins, who seem to have their number. Not to mention a Toronto-Montreal matchup would be HUGE in my native land Canada, which hasn’t seen a Leafs-Habs matchup since 1979. Montreal was the dominant team in the NHL at that point, steamrolling their way that year to their third of four consecutive Cups. They swept the Leafs in four games rather easily. This year, I’d say the Leafs at least have a shot of beating Montreal, which is all I can ask for. It’d be great if they could take a round or two; I’m not so foolish to think the Leafs could go all the way (although I sure would love to be proven wrong). But their goalie, Reimer, has been heating up, so who knows? A hot goalie can make a big difference in the playoffs, when games are much tighter.

NHL playoff hockey is the best thing going in professional sports, in my opinion. I love to watch the playoffs no matter who’s playing, but it’ll be great to see my team actually in the postseason for the first time in so damn long. And if Toronto actually experiences some success, so much the better. After so many years of disappointment, my expectations being kept low but my fingers are crossed.

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