At Leafs practice the other day, a general topic of conversation was how much the city of Toronto has grown up in the past two weeks.
Everybody – media, players, executives – was having a good laugh about it. Remember how we used to be? Oh man, we were so young and foolish then.
When the Toronto Maple Leafs got shellacked in their first game of the postseason against the Tampa Bay Lightning, there was general hysteria. Signs of apocalypse were greeted in the usual way – terror mingled with bloodlust. The knives were already sharpened.
But now, after winning a single playoff round for the first time in 20 years? Now Toronto gets it. Rome wasn’t built in a day and, if you’ve tried to drive across downtown between 5 a.m. and midnight recently, you know that Toronto will not be built for many, many years. Patience is our new civic watchword.
The Leafs lost the first game to the Florida Panthers and everyone was okay with that.
The score was wrong, but everything else was right.
The reason they lost was Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. Sergei Bobrovsky – are you kidding me? Back in Novokuznetsk, they call him Doctor Zhivagoals. He’ll leak. It’s just a matter of time. Deep breaths.
Thirty-six hours later, the time for breathing is over. It’s hard to breathe when you’re screaming into a pillow.
The Leafs lost one they should have won on Thursday, 3-2. They trail Florida two games to none, the panic is back and they’re starting to sound like the old Leafs.
When asked afterward about a couple of key gaffes, Auston Matthews irritatedly described them as “just mistakes. What do you want to call it? They’re mistakes.”
I guess that’s that problem solved.
As it turns out, all that’s been accomplished in the postseason so far is the delaying of the onset of acute Leafs-related anxiety by one game.
The danger of testing Toronto’s patience was apparent in the third period of Game 1. As time wound down, the Scotiabank Arena crowd turned into anti-cheerleaders. They didn’t boo. They just didn’t do anything. I’ve been to mausoleums that are more hip and happening.
Afterward, and almost to a man, the Leafs praised the atmosphere in the building. The same atmosphere that had been objectively moribund during all the times when the Leafs were trailing.
The lesson here – the Leafs fear their own crowd. And they should. At this point, Florida may seem like a good hiding place.
Thursday night’s game played out in exactly the sort of way designed to bait a hockey crowd.
Toronto scored first. More worrying from the Florida perspective was a Matthews dive to the net a minute or so later. Matthews was unscreened. He put the wrister into Bobrovsky’s midsection. But somehow, it nearly leaked through the Panthers netminder. The mood became festive.
A couple of minutes later, another Leafs goal, this one from a power play. Within six minutes of puck drop, the Panthers had taken two silly penalties and trailed by a couple.
The crowd was in its glory. Carlton the Bear came out to work the T-shirt howitzer and no one yelled at him to stand down.
The Panthers got one back and the crowd was unbothered. You aren’t going to shut them out every night. Toronto accepts that now.
They were far more upset when Florida’s Sam Bennett threw a wrestling move on Matthew Knies behind the Panthers’ goal. Knies buckled into the boards. Playing in his 10-ever game with the Leafs, Knies is learning NHL hockey like Neo learned kung fu in The Matrix – violently, and all at once. Knies left the game shortly thereafter.
But going into the first intermission 2-1, it was still mostly giggles.
Within 66 seconds of the restart, it was 3-2 Panthers. Leafs goalie Ilya Samsonov did not exactly cover himself in glory on either tally.
And then, for the first time in a couple of hours, you could have a conversation at normal volume with the person sitting beside you.
During a TV timeout, they brought out the guy who takes off about a hundred identical T-shirts and tossed them into the crowd. Usually, that guy kills. Nobody cared.
One understands that Game Ops in every building everywhere has its marching orders. But there is a difference between watching your team lose in January and watching them lose now. It’s a mystery why nobody adapts the rhythm of the show to that reality.
Mood-dampeners kept coming. Three guys scraping a 100-foot blood trail off the ice after Florida’s Josh Mahura was hit in the face with a puck. Bennett cross-checking Michael Bunting in the head and then, after watching Bunting writhe on the deck for a bit, cross-checking him again. Matthews taking a tripping penalty with about a nanosecond left in the period.
In the third, the Leafs did that thing where they pepper the opposing goal like buckshot, but only manage to hit pads, shinguards and the end boards. You could feel the crowd shrinking into a fetal crouch.
As it ended, a few reflexive boos, followed by unhappy silence.
Now that the Leafs have entered squeaky-bum time, there’s bad news and there’s good news. The bad news is that the Leafs will have to hear about how they’re blowing it for two full days because they don’t play again until Sunday.
The good news is that Panthers owner Vincent Viola will get to go the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. He has a horse in the race. Maybe he’ll invite the NHL executive to join him in the box, because they did do him the favour of clearing up his schedule.
Thirty-six hours ago, Toronto was congratulating itself on learning to play the long game. Now it’s a very short game. Who would’ve guessed the Leafs could dodge the Boston Bruins, and then get run over by Florida? The immediate goal now is take a sweep off the table. Having done that, they can start worrying about getting this back to even footing.
This is the thing about changing your outlook. Sometimes, your outlook doesn’t want to change. You thought hockey doomsaying was over? It’s about to come back into fashion in a big way.