“That hockey game will haunt me until the day I die.” – Joffrey Lupul.
Lupul wrote those words – tweeted them, actually – the morning after the most infamous game in recent Toronto Maple Leafs history. On May 13, 2013, Lupul and his teammates became the first NHL team to blow a three-goal lead in the third period of a Game 7. They let a 4-1 advantage turn into a 5-4 Boston Bruins overtime win that snatched the first-round series out of the Leafs’ hands.
Shortly after Leafs centre Nazem Kadri scored with 14 minutes 27 seconds left in the third period to make it 4-1, Bruins forward Milan Lucic was thinking about who would be traded and who would be fired in what surely would be a massive overhaul. Then, four minutes later, Lucic scored, two more goals came in the last 90 seconds and Patrice Bergeron, who had tied the game, scored six minutes into overtime to leave the largest fan base in the NHL in shock.
There is no question that game is still with the players who remain on the Leafs roster from that awful night.
“Probably right up there, top five for sure. Maybe even the worst,” defenceman Jake Gardiner said when asked where it ranks on his worst hockey memories. “Let’s just hope we don’t have to do it again.
“You look back at it, and I was talking to my brother about playoff series. That one in particular stands out more than the Washington series [last year] just because of the way it ended. It was unbelievable at the time.”
The question now, with the Leafs facing the Bruins again in the first round of the playoffs, is whether or not it haunts the Leafs enough to throw them off their game when the first puck drops on Thursday night.
“Not one bit, nope,” Kadri said. “There’s no sense thinking about it, really. It’s over and done with.
“Obviously both teams have drastically changed. I’m not sure how many guys we still have on this team that played in that game. Mitchie [Marner] might have still been in middle school, I don’t know. It was that long ago. Water under the bridge.”
There are currently five Leafs who were on that 2013 team – although Tyler Bozak might argue there are only four, since he sat out that game due to an injury. The others are Kadri, Gardiner, James van Riemsdyk and Leo Komarov. The Bruins have eight players left from that team, which wound up in the Stanley Cup final, including Bergeron and Brad Marchand, who still make up two-thirds of their top line.
Gardiner also made it clear he hasn’t lost much sleep over that game in the past five years. And he was the guy whose desperate clearing attempt in front of the Leafs’ net whiffed, with the puck going right to Bergeron for the winning goal. Then again, that was also the series in which Gardiner was put into the lineup in the second game and established himself as a regular with his otherwise excellent play.
“I didn’t blame myself. I was just trying to clear the puck out of the net, I guess, and it ended up going right on his stick. Fluky play,” he said. “That was a tough year for me. I didn’t play many games.
“I had a mindset going in: Screw this, I’m just going to play with confidence, it doesn’t matter what I do. I went back to being confident and playing my game. It started well, and that rolled into the next few games.”
That is essentially the mindset of this edition of the Maple Leafs. They are too young to fear the past, too confident in their own abilities.
“This group’s confidence is through the roof,” Kadri said. “We believe in each other, we believe in this team, we believe in everybody. I think it’s an exciting time to be a Maple Leaf fan. We’re anxious to get started.”
What gets forgotten about the 2013 team is that it was considered a young group of players on the rise. But hindsight and the massive rebuild that followed a couple of years later showed that to be laughable. There is no comparison between that team and today’s, which takes Auston Matthews, Marner, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly, Gardiner and Frederik Andersen into the fight, along with a much higher grade of working-class players such as Connor Brown, Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev and Zach Hyman.
Both Gardiner and Kadri say a valuable lesson was learned from the Boston series: No playoff lead is safe. But both say that as far as this team is concerned, the most valuable playoff experience came from last year’s cliffhanger, which was lost to the Washington Capitals in six games.
“I think that’s the important thing heading into the playoffs, nobody can simulate that experience,” Kadri said. “That’s what really helps you mature as a team and helps you be comfortable playing in those high-pressure situations.”
Still, for players such as Marner and Travis Dermott, two local kids who grew up as Leafs fans and were in high school on that awful spring night in 2013, the subject can be painful – if motivating.
“I can’t even talk about that,” Dermott said. “It’s going to be a good little chance to maybe get back at [the Bruins] a little bit. I know it’s a while ago now. Anything you can do to give some pride to the logo on your chest.”