Because everything’s about us, the first thing you think of after the Florida Panthers got swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning is the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Whatever their faults, the Leafs at least stood in against the Stanley Cup defending champions. They got more than they gave, but at least they gave something.
The Panthers – by record, the “best” team in the NHL – got given in Game 1 of their second-round series against Tampa and decided that was enough taking for them.
Florida scored more goals than any other team in the regular season. It scored three in four games once it mattered. Tampa goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy is good, but he doesn’t stretch out across the face of the net like a tarp.
Three goals in four games isn’t losing. It’s giving up.
A forgettable series was spiced up in the late going by a radio report that “several” unidentified Panthers were seen at a strip joint the night after their Game 3 loss. A key element to the reveal was that they were seen there “until nearly 3 a.m.”
Once you play the game, get your wet togs off, get yelled at by your coach, do your media duties, pick out a silk shirt, agree on a destination, figure out who’s calling the Uber and get there, it’s already probably 1 a.m. Hockey players don’t have to be down at the work site at the crack of dawn. Also, professional athletes have been known to enjoy an evening at the ballet.
But whenever they do so after a dispiriting loss in a big game, it’s taken as a sign of total surrender, general insurrection or both.
The rumour was denied by Panthers coach Andrew Brunette. However, he did so in the manner of someone who is not 100-per-cent sure what they’re telling you is completely, unimpeachably correct.
“I don’t know where that comes from,” Brunette told reporters. “In our universe, probably check your sources.”
Later, a second local radio personality, citing his “best in the industry” strip-club sources, said he had confirmed the story. Clearly, working radio in Florida is a 24-hour-a-day job.
Whether it was true, the Panthers went out in Game 4 on Monday night and played like they hadn’t slept since. A blowout is the worst way to lose any series, but a shutout loss (2-0) is close.
From the Leafs’ perspective, one way of looking at this is that it’s a good thing. Maybe even a great thing.
See how close they were? The Leafs were one 50-50 period away from steamrolling the best team by record in NHL. It might’ve taken Toronto five games instead of four, but had it sneaked under Tampa, Florida was there to be plucked.
And then it would have been on to the winner of the Rangers/Hurricanes. Neither of those teams is playing as though they’re getting Sophia Loren-levels of nightly rest.
Then it’s the Avalanche probably. Denver is absolutely bursting with nightclubs. Maybe there’s a circus in town or an all-night driving range. Who knows what after-hours shenanigans might have played a role there?
This game of “what could have happened” is a favourite in Toronto because the Leafs always win it. Luck never breaks their way in reality, but it’s non-stop jackpots once the playoffs become theoretical.
If the Lightning win their third title, many in this city will take that as proof that Toronto kind of tied them for it. It was the refs’ fault the Leafs didn’t get a parade to go along with their moral victory.
The other way of looking at it is that things just got a little harder for the Leafs.
If we start from the proposition that the Leafs are right there with the best postseason performer in the NHL, then they have to win next year. Not might win or could win, but must win.
Expect a subtle conversational shift in the next few months. From “this is the year they finally win a round” to “this is the year they win it all.” Because when there is no progress, it’s time to manufacture some.
It’s a mug’s game trying to guess when the same old excuses will stop working in Toronto. Maybe never. But at some point, the players will get tired of hearing about it. Once that happens, things will start unspooling in a hurry and chaotically. All it takes is one postgame victory salute gone wrong for Toronto’s unconditional love to turn into blind rage.
That’s the situation up here, where it is presumed that while the Leafs are constantly learning and growing, everyone else in the NHL takes three months off to clear out their Netflix queue.
The Panthers are the Leafs without the pressure and a better all-around game. Last year, they put up a fight against Tampa in the postseason and got patted on the head for it. When you’re the second-best team in Florida, I guess that must feel as though you’ve fulfilled your work obligations.
This year, the Panthers were humiliated by the same team. Scratch that. The same team minus arguably its best skater, Brayden Point, who is out injured.
The way they lost reminds you of Tampa’s players getting their heads handed to them by Columbus in 2019. Tampa was also the best team by record in the NHL that year. It also scored the most regular-season goals. And it also decided to take a working vacation in the playoffs.
The result of that demolition is being seen now. Tampa plays like a team that remembers how foolish it felt and is determined to avoid feeling that way again.
The Leafs have been taught this lesson a half-dozen times and haven’t learned it yet. What if Florida does?
Maybe the Eastern Conference busts a hem in 2023. Maybe everyone takes the spring off. Maybe the Leafs finally figure it out. All totally possible.
Or maybe the system is in constant flux. Maybe the teams you imagine you can beat right now based on events that have already taken place are not so beatable when you next meet them in a new context with new stakes.