Forget about the fact that the Toronto Maple Leafs Hockey Club has not won the Stanley Cup since 1967. Invested fans remain outraged at the more banal reality, which is that the last time their team participated in the post-season was April 2004.
Yet still we watch, and wait, and wonder if this season might be different. Last night’s 6-2 shredding courtesy of the Tampa Bay Lightning would lead us to believe that lowering expectations remains the wiser course.
Then again, the Leafs are currently battling five other teams — Atlanta Thrashers, Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers — for two available playoff berths. They have a genuine, if characteristically outside, chance at securing one of those spots.
First, no team in direct competition with the Leafs is poised to dominate down the stretch. The Sabres and Rangers are currently tied for seventh and eighth positions in the Eastern Conference, and both teams are struggling in the aftermath of injuries to key players. The Rangers in particular. After losing solid backup goaltender Martin Biron in a late-February practice mishap, New York has been forced to put all its eggs in a basket called Henrik Lundqvist.
Meanwhile, the Hurricanes and Thrashers are playing consistently sub-par hockey and losing more often than they can afford to. In terms of recent results, the surging Devils pose the greatest threat to the Leafs. As of last night’s game, New Jersey is two points behind Toronto; of course, even if they surpass us, two playoffs spots are available.
Still, just as any team can go on a victorious tear between now and April 10, any other(s) can stumble. Badly. What gives Leafs-land’s admittedly mediocre current talent pool a better shot at a playoff spot is experience. As in, the team collectively doesn’t have much. Of those who completed the 2008-09 season for the Leafs, only three lineup regulars remain: Forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, who are both enjoying career years, and then-rookie defenseman Luke Schenn. Everyone else is, by varying degrees, new to the organization.
Which means this group of mostly young lads hasn’t yet contracted what’s often referred to as Blue and White disease: a debilitating malady that causes otherwise talented or promising players to atrophy upon joining the Toronto market. The magnified fishbowl effect created by the local media’s giant microscope somehow hasn’t been much of a bother in Toronto this season. The team’s feisty and newish bunch is having too much fun to realize that sporting the maple leaf crest is supposed to be as much of a pressure-filled burden as an honour and privilege.
For proof, look no further than the relaxed grin perennially plastered to the face of the Leafs’ young starting goaltender, James Reimer. Here is a married, church-going, curse word-eschewing (seriously, Reimer refuses to deploy naughty language under any circumstance), 23-year-old birthday boy — March 15, believe it — who is unarguably one of the most upbeat players around. Even after a bad loss, Reimer projects a determined and genuine, “We’ll get ’em next time, fellas,” where his predecessors defaulted to mental self-flagellation and despair. Plus, Reimer wins games. Often.
Make no mistake, that kind of spirited demeanour becomes contagious in any dressing room. Which goes a long way to explaining why, after an abysmal start to the season, the Leafs are 17-12-5 since New Year’s Day. It’s why, when down a goal or two, they regularly battle hard, and often enough bounce back and triumph. It’s why they’ve won eight one-goal contests in the past five weeks. It’s why, six games out with 12 left to play in the regular season, the team still has a chance, albeit a small one, to reach the playoffs.
And it’s why, for the first time since 2004, even the most cynical Leafs fan will watch and cheer until the math rules them out for good.
Image courtesy of rmlgonzales.