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Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares (91) and teammates react after they were eliminated by the Columbus Blue Jackets during third period NHL Eastern Conference Stanley Cup playoff action in Toronto on Sunday, August 9, 2020.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Before the season started, the closest Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas would come to predicting an outcome was, “Things are going to happen that we didn’t expect.”

That wasn’t true. The Leafs were exactly the team you expected – talented, mercurial and far less than the sum of its parts.

On Friday, we got all three versions in the space of four hours. The Leafs were bad. Then they were good. Then they were incredible.

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For a couple of days, it was possible to believe that that comeback win against Columbus represented not just a corner turned, but a profound switchback in the club’s development.

That they had transformed in the space of four minutes from a habitual underachiever to a fully realized powerhouse.

Sadly, sports stories don’t end right when it is best for future book sales. The last moments of Game 4 were the peak.

In Sunday’s deciding Game 5, the Leafs decided to live or die by their Big Three. A super-friends lineup of Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Mitch Marner provided many opportunities – a few of which you could have scored on – and not one was taken. Everyone else in blue stood around and watched them work.

Toronto lost the game 3-0 and the series 3-2.

On the one hand, this past week was exciting. On the other hand, the NHL doesn’t give out ribbons for exciting. This season is as much a failure as the last one, and the one before that, and the one before that. Except that each time you fail this way it gets a little worse.

Popular opinion of the Leafs will now split into two camps.

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The first and loudest will maintain that the Leafs are the team we saw at the end of the comeback win. That it’s just a matter of harnessing that will to power on a regular basis.

That view will be pushed out hard by management because it’s the easiest one to handle. Believing it is just a matter of time is beneficial for the continued job prospects of all involved.

The dissenters to that view will focus on Game 3 – the one in which Columbus pulled a Toronto (up until that point referred to as a ‘Boston’). They’ll say that team – the one who decided to punch out for the night in the middle of the second period – is the real Leafs. That there is something Wizard of Oz-y about the Toronto roster: no heart. That some part of the core needs to be cut out and replaced with players who are (unpopular term these days) winners. In between are the people who have better things to do than worry about Toronto Maple Leafs’ salary-cap minutiae, but would like to see their team win for a change.

Is it possible for that set of people to be disappointed by Leafs hockey any more? I doubt it.

Being disappointed by failure suggests you had reasonable expectations of success. Does anyone in Toronto believe the Leafs, as currently constructed, are a winning team?

Not a good team – they are that, which is part of the problem – but a winning one.

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Winning teams aren’t good all the time, but they are good when they have to be.

The Leafs issue isn’t tactical. The team is fine as constructed, and a lot better than fine in many spots.

Toronto’s main problem is more holistic – this team has no culture of showing up when it matters. That happened in all three losses during this five-game series, and for a large part of one of the wins.

Whenever the lights get bright, most of this club takes a powder. Later, when you ask about it, it’s a whole bunch of ‘yeah, geez, I should’ve been better. Won’t happen again.’

And then it happens again.

The fanbase and media froth over it for a while, and then someone else on this perpetual loser gets a long-term deal that is over current market value. What a shocker that no one appears to be under pressure to get their act together.

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Since there are no consequences, the behaviour persists and the same flakey excuses are repeated.

We are often told there is no harder place in the world to play professional hockey than in Toronto.

There’s another way of looking at that. That the constant media focus in Toronto makes its players apathetic. After a while, they zone it out. Since they get screamed at just as loud for a mistake they make in November as one they make in the playoffs, what’s the difference?

That the best players have figured out they are the ones in charge. People here are so desperate for a winner, they’ll continue to believe long after they should’ve stopped.

And what’s the worst that can happen? They get traded somewhere else? Tampa or L.A. sounds like a paid vacation after this gong show. Some of these guys may be dying for a trade.

How do you fix that?

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Nobody in management is brave or dumb enough to start over. There will be no dismantling of the core.

So where does that leave the Leafs? In exactly the same place they started. They’re stuck.

The weird side-effect of that stasis is that every season starts with a little more hope than the year before. Because it can’t be that bad again, can it? (Ed. note: It can.)

That hope is never followed by faith. Nobody believes in this team, including the people who play on it.

So when you give up a three-goal lead in a game that should’ve swung the series your way, well then, whaddyagonnado? You’ll get ‘em next year, when you’ll have hope again.

Every year, that hope increases along with your desperation, which in turn becomes frustration, and then around we go again.

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Eventually, someone gets fired and the new guy makes his first and only promise – to do it differently this time. That’s the Toronto way.

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