It is prudent to remember there was not supposed to be tears for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2013, that expectations were so limited going into the lockout-shortened regular season that the mere suggestion of a seventh game in a playoff series was laughable.
Yet even though there is a danger in overreacting to Monday night’s historic 5-4 meltdown against the Boston Bruins, the fact remains that no NHL team had blown a three-goal, third-period lead in a Game 7 until the Leafs. The components of the collapse have been visible for most of the season; the game cannot be seen in a vacuum.
Prudence needs to be measured as much as the desire to back up the truck needs to be tamed.
You can’t tell everybody that the season is all about evaluating a young core and not follow through; you can’t stop short and then blame a collapse on a lack of experience.
This was a total-systems failure: The coach didn’t call a timeout, the captain didn’t lead, the goalie didn’t stop the puck, and there were far too many long shifts.
The Maple Leafs, alas, looked like a team that didn’t expect to be facing anybody in Game 7 and stopped playing, and when they most needed a play or a blocked shot or even just a smart decision, nobody had an answer.
So let’s reset, shall we?
Going into these playoffs, the positive signs from the regular season included the emergence of goaltender James Reimer and Nazem Kadri as an NHL forward (not a top-liner, but a good forward nonetheless) as well as the growing influence of players such as Cody Franson and, to a degree, James van Riemsdyk.
Phil Kessel overcame a horrid start and began scoring goals. Joffrey Lupul established himself as the emotional centre of the club, regardless of Dion Phaneuf’s wearing the captain’s C.
The playoffs continued the revelations.
Kessel shook off his Bruins hoodoo and badly outplayed Tyler Seguin; Kadri was a non-factor through the first five games but broke through in Games 6 and 7; van Riemsdyk showed a willingness to go into the nastiest areas of the ice.
Franson partnered with Jake Gardiner in what was the Leafs’ best and most consistent defence pairing, and there isn’t a player on the Leafs whose stock rose as much as Gardiner’s. The Bruins had no answer for his quick feet and quick thinking.
If the Leafs had eliminated the Bruins, the case could have been made that Gardiner’s introduction into the lineup turned the series around.
Kessel merits a contract extension – he has a year remaining – and perhaps the city is comfortable enough with him after this series to let him be. Clearly, it is worth finding a bona fide No. 1 centre to set him up.
The more difficult issues are Reimer and Phaneuf.
Reimer was the Leafs’ best player at times in the series and showed that the spirit is forever willing, but he did let in an overtime goal on the short side in Game 4 and his tendencies toward fat rebounds and mishandling otherwise routine catches manifested themselves on more than one occasion.
Phaneuf is the most polarizing athlete in the city after his pinch in Game 4 and his inability to restore order when Game 7 was getting out of control. Yet those who have already decided against re-signing Phaneuf, or have resolved to run him out of town, ought to consider who will take over those minutes against the other team’s front line.
You may not want to give your heart to either player, but at least their performances mean that if general manager Dave Nonis elects to do some heavy lifting this off-season, he can approach his peers from something approximating a position of strength.
The most telling statement was uttered by head coach Randy Carlyle, who started the off-season spinning minutes after the loss when he said his biggest disappointment was that the Leafs lost two games at home during the series. That’s the only thing left for Carlyle, his staff and Leafs management to do: try to find something else to focus on besides the final 10 minutes of hockey they played this season, make sure this doesn’t become one of those defining moments for their young core. That, and do an unemotional, clear-eyed evaluation of this team, including how it all came apart so quickly in a place where they had no business being.