Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Downed

I'm not ashamed to say I take sports seriously. Yeah, I know they're just games and in the grand scheme of things, they don't mean a whole hell of a lot. But they provide me with entertainment and that's good enough for me. I don't paint my face in my favorite teams' colors and I don't even go to a lot of games in person anymore. But I watch my teams play religiously, especially the Toronto Maple Leafs. Sadly, as I've documented on numerous occasions here, the Leafs have disappointed me much more often than not throughout my life.

But this season, after a nine-year absence, the Leafs made the playoffs and had the seeming misfortune to play the Boston Bruins in the first round, a team that has dominated them over the last three seasons. I didn't have high hopes going into the series, guessing that Boston would win in 5, but I hoped the young Leafs would get some valuable experience in the process. Game 1 bore out that original line of thinking as Boston just dominated Toronto, with a 4-1 win that felt more like 10-1. It looked like it was going to be a quick series. But the Leafs, as they've done all season, proved resilient and trounced the B's in game 2 by a 4-2 score. Rather than sit back and get outshot and outplayed like they had done in much of the previous three weeks, the Leafs started using their speed and size to attack the Bruins. Unfortunately, they were still making defensive mistakes and lost game 3 by a 5-2 score. In game 4, the Leafs dominated the third period and OT but lost when captain Dion Phaneuf went for a risky hit in the offensive end and was caught up ice while the Bruins scored on a 2-on-1. Things didn't look good and Boston fans were already starting to look ahead to the next round.

Instead of roll over, the Leafs came back strong and won two straight 2-1 games, with goalie James Reimer playing like he did for most of the season. The series came back to Boston last night for game 7 and I tried not to get my hopes up. It was a nerve-wracking affair, but the Leafs played a smart game and took a 2-1 lead into the third period. Two minutes in, Phil Kessel--who had spent the last few years being tormented by Bruins fans after being traded to the Leafs for draft picks that turned into Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton--banged home his fourth goal of the series to make the score 3-1. And a few minutes later, Kessel took a shot that was kicked right to Nazem Kadri, who fired it home to give Toronto a seemingly insurmountable 4-1 lead. The air went out of the TD Garden and the Bruins looked listless. But there were still nearly 15 minutes left. I wasn't getting excited yet. Then Nathan Horton scored at 9:18 to make it 4-2. The Bruins started attacking more, but the Leafs were able to fight them off until there were only 2 and a half minutes left to go. The Bruins pulled their goalie and there was a scramble in front and Milan Lucic fired in a wrister to make it 4-3. With the net still empty, the Leafs were unable to clear the puck and with monstrous Zdeno Chara acting as a screen, Patrice Bergeron scored to tie the game with 51 seconds left. Unfuckingbelievable. This was a comeback of historic proportions. The Bruins nearly scored the winner in the dying seconds, but the game went to overtime.

I was in utter disbelief, but Toronto could still win it. The overtime began and Toronto had some good chances, including a one-timer by Joffrey Lupul that Tuukka Rask made a wicked glove save on. Then about 6 minutes into OT, there was yet another scramble in the Leafs end. Three Leafs were unable to corral a rebound and Bergeron buried it for the series winner. I saw him get to the puck and knew it was the winner before it went into the net. I just got up and left the room, not wanting to hear Bruins announcer Jack Edwards bellow one of his patented game-winning speeches or see the replay. It felt like I'd been kicked in the gut. Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. It took me a while to get my bearings.

But I've had this experience before. With the Leafs, there were numerous examples over the years, but probably the worst was in '93 when they lost in OT to Wayne Gretzky and the Kings in game 6 and then Gretzky just dominated game 7 to send LA to the finals. The last time the Leafs were in the playoffs, way back in 2004, they lost a game 7 in OT to the Flyers when Jeremy Roenick roared down the wing and fired a laser past Ed Belfour. Two years earlier, the Leafs lost to Carolina in the conference finals in overtime when Martin Gelinas scored, again preventing a trip to the Cup finals.

The Blue Jays had their share of heartbreak in the '80s, blowing a 3-1 lead to Kansas City in the 1985 ALCS to lose the series. Two years later, the Jays had a seemingly solid 3.5 game lead in the AL East with a week to go in the season and then proceeded to lose SEVEN straight and see Detroit take the division. At least, the Jays ended up winning the World Series in '92 and '93, so the suffering paid off. Since then, of course, the Jays haven't even had a sniff at the postseason.

And I became a New England Patriots fan after moving to this area 30 years ago, which only paid off after Bill Belichick took over the team and the Pats won three Super Bowls early in the last decade. But despite having loaded teams over the last several years and making the Super Bowl twice after the 2007 and 2011 seasons, the Pats have disappointed, suffering heartbreaking losses to the New York Giants in both championships.

This Leafs loss feels the worst because they were so goddamn close to moving on to the next round to take on the New York Rangers. But there were certainly positives to come out of the series. Toronto's young forwards, including Kessel, Kadri, Lupul, James Van Riemsdyk and others, played well, and once Carlyle started playing slick d-man Jake Gardiner in game 4, he was an offensive force. The team needs a top-line centerman and some good defensive defensemen, but they've proven they can play with one of the top teams in the league. After all, the Bruins had a monumental choke of their own in 2010, blowing a 3-0 series lead and a 3-0 lead in game 7 to the Flyers; the following year, Boston won the Stanley Cup. I'm not saying the Leafs will win it all next year, but hopefully they learn from this and get better. I know I'll be watching. It hurts now, but it'll get better. Right? Right.
 



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