You feel it, don’t you? That feeling of knowing that however unlikely something is to happen, it’s happening, and that you can’t stop it.
That weight of feeling is so heavy that it’s going to be a wonder if the Toronto Maple Leafs can make it to Tampa by tomorrow. How will they get that plane off the ground?
Gifted a golden opportunity to put the Tampa Bay Lightning away at home on Thursday, the Leafs decided to let them off the hook instead.
This was a tighter, chippier and even more ill-tempered game than the four that preceded it. These two teams are starting to really dislike each other. Pat Maroon attempting to squeeze Mark Giordano through the boards headfirst at the end of the second period didn’t warm relations any.
Initially, that obvious penalty wasn’t called. Then it turned into a roughing minor. When it comes to anti-Toronto conspiracy theories, this refereeing crew is not doing much to convince the paranoid.
But for the first time, the Andrei Vasilevskiy that Toronto had heard so much about showed up. Though the Lightning played loose in their own end, their Russian goalie wouldn’t allow them to pay for it. The Leafs were nearly as stingy, but not stingy enough.
Early in the third, Toronto’s Mitch Marner had a breakaway – pretty much the exact guy you’d want in that situation. Marner tried to head fake the goalie. Vasilevskiy didn’t flinch. Marner’s shot was casually pushed aside. It was that sort of night.
This time, there would be no comebacks. Tampa won 4-2. Toronto, still ahead 3-2 in the series, has another opportunity to end it in Florida on Saturday night.
In any other circumstance, you’d say it was a well-contested game that the Leafs ought not be embarrassed to lose. But it’s this circumstance.
We have been before, many times. In what might be called the Auston Matthews era, the Leafs have played 10 playoff games in which they had the opportunity to eliminate an opponent. They’ve lost all 10.
It’s long since begun to feel like this has anything to do with quality of play, goaltending, coaching, tactics, barometric pressure or any other objective factor. This team is turning into proof that the supernatural exists. Somehow, somewhere, one of the Leafs annoyed a powerful metaphysician.
Now we play the familiar game of call and response. Toronto says, “You’re not doing it again, are you?” And the Leafs say, “We’re a whole new team. Remember when we won Game 4 when we shouldn’t have?” And then Toronto says, “A few of us can still remember when you won a Game 6 elimination game. Back in 1967.”
The Leafs can now do a few small things to change the temperature. They can bring Michael Bunting back. They can dangle the possibility of starting goalie Matt Murray, who may or may not be in game shape by Saturday. They can juggle the lines again.
Got a problem and don’t know what it is, much less how to solve it? Juggle the lines. If only the rest of us had lines in our lives. We’d be non-stop juggling.
What they can’t do is change anybody’s mind on an off-day. Because you know what people are thinking – that this is already doomed. That the Leafs are going to find a way to blow a series they had in the bag. That we’re in for another summer of rage, apologies and self-delusion.
A small moment in the second period typified the genre. Tampa’s Mikey Eyssimont drifting into the Leafs zone off the wing. Leafs defender Justin Holl choosing for some reason to turn his back on him. Leafs goalie Ilya Samsonov folding up like origami, leaving about a dozen holes through which to put a puck on a tight angle.
It was a bad goal to allow at any point in the season. But at this time of year, it’s the sort that gets in your head. On the night, the Leafs could not recover from it.
If you’re an optimist, you have a few theories. Of course they weren’t going to win their first playoff series in 20 years at home. That would spark riots of anarchic joy. The Leafs just wanted to do the Toronto Police Service and everyone who owns a Starbucks near Union Station a solid. Better to win on the road after scaring the hell out of people. More modest. More seemly. Fewer bonfires.
If you’re a pessimist, then you know the routine. This is where we all start saying it’s over, hoping that voicing that fear aloud will guarantee it doesn’t happen. Call it reverse wish fulfilment.
The Leafs will be playing the same sort of game, but with clichés. Backs against the wall. Believe in the group of guys we’ve got in there. Know what we have to do.
Why is it the Leafs always know what they have to do, but can’t ever do it?
If we’re being straight, this series should be over now, and not in the way Leafs fans would like.
Toronto should not have won a Game 3 in which they trailed by a goal with less than a minute to play.
They absolutely, positively should not have won a Game 4 in which they played for 10 minutes of a 60-minute contest.
In a more rational world, Tampa is winning the series on Thursday night, not winning their second game.
Maybe that’s the sign that the times they are a changin’. The Leafs haven’t won anything, but they also haven’t lost something they very well could have. If that’s possible, then maybe anything is possible.
Or maybe the Leafs are Lucy holding a football, and the Toronto fan base is Charlie Brown. Maybe everyone’s about to end up on their backs again.