So the youngest team in hockey is playing in a Game 7 for the right to move on to the NHL’s final eight.
This truly is the sort of territory where the Toronto Maple Leafs have yet to tread.
No, not being in the playoffs, for the snarky among you. And not winning games.
Instead, what these Leafs have become – by pushing the Boston Bruins to Monday’s do-or-die finale with back-to-back 2-1 wins – is one of those plucky hockey underdogs, a young team that could start to capture the imagination of those well beyond the limits of Leafs Nation if their run continues beyond this pivotal game.
It’s a subtle distinction, to be sure, but one that’s new in these parts.
(Or is new, at the very least, in the past few decades.)
Usually when it comes to pro sports, as in many things emanating from the so-called centre of the universe, Toronto-related success is jeered rather than cheered, especially from the particularly polarized fan bases in Montreal and Vancouver. It was certainly that way back when the Leafs were last making the playoffs regularly, with the Pat Quinn era teams having the benefit of a bloated payroll that allowed them to add veteran after veteran in an unsuccessful attempt to buy a long-awaited Stanley Cup.
Before that, sure, the Leafs were underdogs of a sort for long, long stretches, with Harold Ballard’s ugly ownership in the ‘80s ensuring awfulness through sheer incompetence year after year.
Eventually, former captain Doug Gilmour’s winsome determination won some converts in the early ‘90s, but even then, it was a team coming off a 99-point season and able to rival the best in the league.
What the Leafs have never been is this young (average age: a little over 26), this green (more than half of them have zero previous postseason experience) and this surprisingly successful.
Few gave Toronto much of a chance against the Bruins in Round 1, but they’ve been the better team in this series, rebounding from a terrible Game 1 – with 10 players in the lineup that night showing the jitters of having never played in the postseason – to grow with each 60-minute effort since.
It’s almost as if they have been learning on the fly, picking up what experience they can and using a happy-to-be-there attitude to play with (and now beat) a team that won the Stanley Cup just two years ago.
“Since we don’t have as much playoff experience as we would like, every game we play, the guys are a little bit more, I don’t know if comfortable is the right word, but a little more confident in what the playoffs bring and how we need to play to be successful,” said winger James van Riemsdyk, who leads the Leafs in postseason experience at just 24 years of age. “That’s always a good thing, too.”
That confidence has curiously never been in short supply, even when they dropped – to borrow coach Randy Carlyle’s phrasing – “a dagger” of an overtime game in Game 4, with captain Dion Phaneuf uncharacteristically reckless on the key goal that put his team down three games to one.
Unlike so many recent teams to wear blue and white and pile up losses, there’s an almost irrational belief among the players that they can keep this up, and it appears to be propelling them forward, night after night.
Then there are some of the individual stories involved, many of which are compelling theatre all of their own.
The team’s goaltender and MVP, James Reimer, tops that list, with his devout Mennonite background and growing up in a community of 130 people two hours north of Winnipeg having gifted him with one of the most down-to-earth personas of any professional athlete out there.
Reimer, now 25, didn’t even play organized hockey until age 12, as his parents didn’t want outside influences to lead their son “astray.”
Now, a little more than a decade later and with his young wife in the stands cheering him on, he can be seen thanking the heavens after each win in a rare display of piety in Canada’s national game.
In front of Reimer are a cast of hardworking, no-nonsense blueliners, with big men like Cody Franson (Sicamous, B.C.), Mark Fraser (Ottawa) and Carl Gunnarsson (Orebro, Sweden) the very definition of the underrated and unpretentious athlete.
Add in youngsters like Jake Gardiner – one of the flashiest skaters in the league – and Nazem Kadri, both of whom have played key roles in Toronto’s resurgence this season and who bring considerable on-ice talent and pure entertainment value to the Leafs games.
Add in a veteran like Jay McClement, the quintessential checker, who has former coaches around the league cheering on his success after playing a whole career without winning a playoff round to this point.
(“He’s a glue player, for sure,” says Andy Murray, his bench boss for years in St. Louis. “He comes from a great family – you just like people like that to have success.”)
And even add in the Leafs silent superstar Phil Kessel, the scruffy kid from small-town Wisconsin who has finished in the NHL’s top 10 in scoring the past two seasons but rarely if ever utters a sentence longer than a few words, an idol for the timid amongst all the bravado in pro sports these days.
There is a little bit of everything on this team.
There’s also no question that these Leafs are the underdogs, despite coming into the postseason as the fifth seed in the East after wilting down the stretch.
Many in the game believe that had the season actually been a full 82 games and not the lockout-shortened 48, Toronto would have been hard-pressed to even make the playoffs, as this is a team that was often outshot and out chanced over the final half of the year, relying more and more heavily on Reimer to bail them out as time went along.
But the club that has shown up in the past five playoff games has born little resemblance to that one, with the Leafs turning in a handful of their best games (in nearly a decade?) right when the franchise needed them the most.
Strangely, too, through it all, the vitriol that normally accompanies Toronto’s success has been a bit subdued, as if fans in Montreal and Vancouver – whose teams have bowed out early, denying them much ammunition – have called a brief ceasefire to allow Leafs fans to cheer this one unlikely run on.
That won’t last, especially if and when Toronto progresses to being consistently competitive and its fan base more overtly annoying.
But for now, for one round against the big, bad Bruins, they’re the lovable underdogs, and there’s room on the bandwagon for a few more.
If only their charmed run continues.