There may be no joy in Leafs Nation today but the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans need to remember something – every great NHL team had to deal with playoff heartbreak on the way to winning.
It is part of the process of learning how to win. In the formative years of just about every notable Stanley Cup champion is a stunning postseason loss or two. They may not all be as shocking as the Leafs blowing a 4-1 lead to lose in overtime to the Boston Bruins in the seventh and deciding game on Monday night but they were comparable. The players on those teams will tell you they were necessary steps in learning what it takes to become a champion.
In fact, the Maple Leafs themselves handed out a few of those lessons. In 1978, a young and talented Maple Leafs team that would sadly be undone by the ownership of Harold Ballard shocked another young and even more talented team on the rise, the New York Islanders. The Islanders went up 2-0 in that playoff series and later held a 3-2 lead but were knocked off by the Leafs in Game 7. Two years later, the Islanders won the first of four consecutive Stanley Cups.
Few will argue the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s were not one of the greatest dynasties in NHL history. But they blew an even-bigger third-period lead than the Leafs did in what most of them will cite as their best learning experience.
In the first round of the 1982 playoffs, the Los Angeles Kings were considered mere cannon fodder for Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr and the rest of the mighty Oilers. But then came the Miracle on Manchester in Game 3 at the Forum in Los Angeles.
The Oilers held a 5-0 lead in the third period and then fell apart, losing 6-5 in overtime. They were so stunned they went on to lose the series to the Kings. Another learning experience followed in 1983 when the Islanders swept them in the Stanley Cup final but then came five NHL championships from 1984 to 1990.
In 1995, Steve Yzerman and the Detroit Red Wings were swept aside in the Cup final by the New Jersey Devils and lost in six the following year in the semi-finals to a Colorado Avalanche team that matched them in talent but had more tenacity. However, those experiences helped head coach Scotty Bowman convince Yzerman to give up scoring a few goals for a two-way game and championships in 1997, 1998 and 2002 were the result.
So instead of accusing their team of choking, all concerned should step back and listen to the Bruins. They spent a lot of time in the series talking about how the learned a lesson from blowing a 3-0 series lead and a 3-0 lead in Game 7 to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010. After their comeback Monday night, the Bruins paid tribute to a young group of Leafs that found an identity this season as a resilient, fast, fore-checking team with a bright future.
“It kind of reminds me of where we were at [as a young team] in 2008 against Montreal, and we pushed them to Game 7,” said forward Milan Lucic, one of the chief Leaf-killers. “They’re going to have a good team in the future and I think that team and organization and city have a lot to be proud about.”
No one is saying that about the Washington Capitals these days. They, too, were a young team on the rise a few years ago but one that never learned from its playoff disasters. So they just kept happening.
At the same time as the Maple Leafs were alternately thrilling and shocking their fans, the Capitals rolled over and died in their Game 7. The New York Rangers routed them 5-0, putting Caps general manager George McPhee back on the endangered list.
Which situation would you rather have?
The Leafs come away from this knowing players like Jake Gardiner and Cody Franson showed they can play the minutes needed from a No. 1 defence pairing despite a few mistakes. Phil Kessel finally showed he can perform against the Bruins and Joffrey Lupul showed it is he, not Dion Phaneuf, who is the emotional leader of the team.
What Leafs GM David Nonis needs to do now, and undoubtedly will, is sit back and take a few days to decompress and then go over the situation with head coach Randy Carlyle and the rest of the Leafs executives. No decision should or will be made as an angry reaction to the way the Leafs lost Monday night.