As we now stand, the Toronto Maple Leafs have lost three in a row.
Stop the clocks.
Cut off the phone.
With muffled drum and a low moan about how it all comes down to goaltending, dammit, we told you that, we told you, bring out the coffin.
It’s time to start burying the Leafs.
It is a rite of spring more cherished in these lands than the arrival of a robin, or that first time your neighbour goes to the store in his shorts though it is still only a couple of degrees above freezing.
This ritual has nothing to do with the quality of the team, or where it sits in the standing, or how it actually looked out there on a given night. All it requires is the magic symbol – usually, a short losing streak; occasionally, a public meltdown by a player/coach/GM – and the ancient ceremony may begin.
You started to see the spell unfold on Tuesday night. The Leafs lost 4-3 to the Winnipeg Jets, their old rival (”old” in this case meaning since January). This was coming off two bored efforts against the North Division’s life preserver that won’t float, the Vancouver Canucks.
Where did the Leafs rank when this slow-motion car crash began? First in the NHL. Where do they rank right now? Still first.
But, folks, I have to caution you – those are facts. Don’t be fooled by them. What you want to concentrate on here – Les Leafs du Printemps – is how the team is making you feel.
Unsure? Yes, absolutely. Go on.
Deceived? Of course. They were good for months and now, for nine periods, they’ve been a little less good. Who wouldn’t feel betrayed?
Perhaps you want to devote all the time you’ve wasted on watching hockey to going online and screaming about how things never change when it comes to this team? Yup. Exactly. That sounds like the closest thing to a plan I’ve heard in hours.
It is also crucial for this process that members of the Leafs organization pretend they also believe three losses in March has the potential to be an extinction-level event.
“You either have to have winning habits, or you have losing habits,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said.
What is a losing habit, exactly? You hear that a lot. Is it holding your stick upside-down? “Sorry, coach. That’s just the way they taught me back in the ‘Shwa. It’s a really hard habit to kick.” This is the kind of motivational mumbo-jumbo that sounds profound when you’re winning, and acts as a red cape to a bull when you are losing. It invites scorn.
“I think we’re in a good spot,” forward Zach Hyman said. “I think all teams go through adversity.”
If Hyman plays for any other team, this is what that really means: “We’re in a good spot. Everyone goes through adversity.”
But since Hyman plays for the Leafs, here’s what it means: “If I can convince these dummies that everything is fine, it’ll buy me a couple of minutes to get to the lifeboats first.”
Just once in our lifetimes, you would like to hear someone on the Leafs say something like, “It’s March. Keep your shirt on” or “You know what I’m actually worried about – global warming. It’s going to be hard to win a Stanley Cup underwater.”
But the Leafs have been conditioned to respond to incipient hysteria with answers that heighten, rather than lessen, the problem. No one on the team knows how to wave off worry with a (genuine) laugh. Instead, they go one of two ways – indulging it, or pushing back so hard it gets the paying customers in a mood to send an e-mail to head office.
The Leafs are infected with a particular strain of Stockholm Syndrome, the NHL variant. They identify with their captors (i.e. the alarmist wing of the Leafs fanbase).
On the one hand, that must be a bummer. But on the other hand, it does get people talking about you. The Leafs never have more eyeballs on them or lead more broadcasts than when they are in trouble. At some point, the adrenaline boost of all that attention – negative though it may be – has twisted the way the organization responds to a bad run of form. It finds it comforting. It is their most natural state.
Hockey is not the first, second and third most popular sport in Toronto. Complaining about hockey tops them all by a wide margin. After enough time passed without any change, that became the losing habit that threatens the Leafs year after year.
There are two ways to go now.
They win on Thursday and the complainers lose their grip on the debate. All the yelling for a major trade or a goalie switch or whatever it is that’s bothering them right now cools off. But that doesn’t end things. Now that the spring ritual has begun, it will not end until the playoffs arrive.
Or they lose on Thursday. Then it’s time to start lighting off the social-media depth charges. That leaves you with two news days to fill until the next game, on Saturday. All producers on sports radio can put their feet up because every hit until then has only one topic: “What’s wrong with the Leafs?”
If they lose on Saturday, we’re into a cancel-all-MLSE-leaves civic emergency. It’s time to start talking about quite reasonable measures such as trading Auston Matthews and firing Carlton the Bear.
It doesn’t make any sense, but this is how it goes in Toronto. I will say, it’s not all bad. After a year of uncertainty, it’s nice to know some things never, ever, ever change.