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Toronto Maple Leafs' Jason Spezza celebrates a goal during the first period against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Oct. 23.Fred Vuich/The Associated Press

Every Toronto Maple Leafs season plays out in a classic three-act structure – set-up, confrontation, resolution.

The wrinkles particular to this market are how long it takes to get to the confrontation, and that there’s never any satisfactory resolution.

The Leafs’ near-term mission this year was remaining in the set-up phase for as long as possible. Months, hopefully.

How do you that? Jabber non-stop about new additions, new tactics and new resolve. Tell your stars to smile more. Hypnotize the fanbase into thinking something fundamental has changed when nothing substantial has changed. Pray that you can get into the new year before you have to start answering questions about holes in the lineup or why Zach Hyman turned into Rocket Richard as soon as he left Toronto.

It’s okay to lose a few. Just don’t lose badly. If you do lose badly, be gracious. Toronto fans are totally fine rooting for a loser, but they don’t like losers who lip back.

That doesn’t sound hard, but the Leafs couldn’t manage it for six games. Now we are into all confrontation, all the time.

The speed wobble started after Friday’s loss to San Jose. Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe was asked about the “lazy” effort of newcomer Nick Ritchie.

The right way to answer this question in Toronto is whatever way you can do that without creating pull quotes. Keefe couldn’t do it.

First, he took umbrage: “That’s not an appropriate question.”

Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize we were all sitting cross-legged in the circle of trust. You wouldn’t want to offend a guy who makes millions in the entertainment business by critiquing the quality of his entertaining.

That would have been fine, but Keefe’s red mist was coming up. He had to stick one in at the end: “You should be asking as many questions about Matthews and Marner today as you should be about Ritch.”

Oh dear.

This is the sort of tone you will remember from Mike Babcock’s time in charge.

Say what you will about Babcock’s propensity to bully, but he did at least pick on the bigger targets. Matthews and Marner were particular favourites, though rarely in public.

Slappers and ticklers. That’s usually how it goes in head coaching. You hire a Mike Keenan-type to scare the hell out of everyone. When you that stops working, you bring in a tickler.

Keefe is the tickler to Babcock’s slapper. At least, he was.

He’s beginning to realize that two years of tickling hasn’t done him much good. If things go wrong again this year, a slapper will be sitting in his office by spring. Time to start swinging.

I’m not sure going straight at your top two guys is the way to do it. Babcock’s reputation as the best coach in the game foundered on that same shoal. But this is how confrontation begins.

You smooth over those little slips by winning. So, obviously, the Leafs decided to lose. And boy, when this team commits to something, it really goes for it.

A 7-1 loss to anyone at any point is terrible. But Saturday’s 7-1 loss to a Pittsburgh team missing Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang was especially ambitious.

“Got away from us there,” Keefe said of two go-ahead goals allowed in 15 seconds. “There’s a lot of things not to be happy about from that point on.”

They should have that stencilled above all the entrances into the Scotiabank Arena – “Got away from us in the mid-1960s. Lot of things not to be happy about from that point on.”

“We got outworked, outcompeted,” Jake Muzzin said. “So we gotta go back to the drawing board.”

How many times have we heard this exact formulation from a Leafs player over the past few years? Where is this drawing board? What’s drawn on it? Maybe the Leafs should think about getting either a new board, new drawings or new drawers.

Sure, it’s just a couple of losses. It won’t matter in the great sweep of the year. But the success of this Leafs season had very little to do with the standings.

Let’s take the possibility of missing the playoffs off the table. If it heads in that direction, a bunch of people are getting fired before the break.

But whether it finishes first or fourth in the Atlantic doesn’t really matter. Toronto has to make the postseason by whatever means and win one round. That’s the necessity.

With that in mind, the success of the regular season was going to be determined by how long the Leafs could keep the narrative under their control. They’ve already lost control of the narrative.

The team has a losing record. Matthews and Marner have one point, combined. The Leafs’ best performer is probably Jason Spezza, and he’s the only guy in the NHL collecting CPP in addition to his regular paycheque.

Is the season headed into the ditch? It’s been a half-dozen games. No one has any idea where the season is headed yet.

Does everyone in Toronto believe the season is headed into the ditch? That’s a better question and, yes, absolutely, people now believe that.

Toronto has two modes of rooting for the hockey team – unfounded optimism and panic. We’ve switched from one to the other.

Once that happens in a season there is no switching back. Now the confrontation begins – coach vs. players; players vs. each other; the fanbase vs. management; management vs. the coach and the players.

It always comes to this with the Leafs, but it usually takes a while. In the past couple of years, the fight didn’t start until everything was over.

So maybe this coming struggle of all against all is a good way to shake things up. Probably not, but maybe.

Soon enough, someone will say something in a moment of frustration they shouldn’t have and the team will be duking it out with the city.

That confrontation will definitely produce a resolution, though probably not the one the Leafs were imagining a few days ago.

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