As Toronto coach Randy Carlyle put it following the unfathomable Game 7 loss last night, “Losing the way we did… There’s nothing you can say to explain how and why it happened.”
But oh boy, it happened alright.
An utter collapse that beggared belief to all those who watched it unfold.
The Leafs, outplaying the Bruins as they had much of this series, were leading 4-1 with half a period to go. Sure there was nervousness. But no one in their most pessimistic of outlooks, could envision a 3-goal comeback by the Bruins to tie it, their third and fourth goals coming just 31 seconds apart with their goalie pulled. It was just too much to absorb, too much to process this turn of events. The overtime dagger just six minutes in by Patrice Bergeron sealed it for the Bruins. And it was over. Season done for the Leafs.
Had it been just a loss or a like the 5-0 slam of the Washington Capitals by the New York Rangers in the evening’s other Game 7, it would’ve been preferable to what the Leafs experienced last night.
It wasn’t just losing; the Leafs made losing history. They created a new benchmark for Game 7 meltdowns, as in, never before seen. For that reason it is the bitterest of defeats to absorb and will live on in infamy — somewhat akin to the Bill Buckner ground ball in the 1986 World Series. A reference point for all hockey collapses and burgeoning collapses from this point on — an unforgettable event for all the wrong reasons.
A decade from now or even beyond, whenever a team with a lead starts to falter in a third period, particularly in a Game 7, conversations everywhere will start, “Remember when the Leafs blew that three-goal lead to Boston in a Game 7?”
About the only silver lining is that it didn’t happen in the Stanley Cup finals.
But it’s more unwanted baggage for this snake-bitten franchise. No Stanley Cup since ’67 and now there’s this unpleasant playoff memory, leaving a sour taste in a playoff series that delighted and entertained if you’re a Leafs fan.
That’s not to say that there isn’t some upside to these first playoffs for Toronto in nine years. If the glass is flipped the other way, a young, inexperienced Leafs team gave the heavily favoured Bruins everything they could handle, pushing them to the brink of a Game 7. Had it gone the Leafs way, it would be the Bruins and their management facing the tough questions after what would have been consecutive first-round exits after winning the Cup in 2011.
The hometown team gave us a spring fling to remember. Leafs Nation experienced its most jubilant two weeks in a decade. The cheering thousands packed into Maple Leafs Square nightly gave pride to every Leafs fan whether in Toronto, across the country or beyond. It was a joyful spectacle. And for once, it was our spectacle; our fans caught up in the exuberance of the playoffs.
The lengthy series also provided a prolonged look at who the Leafs really are against a very tough opponent — what we have as a team and what we don’t.
The insertion of Jake Gardiner early into the series gave the youngster some great experience while he gave us as fans, glimpses of what might be with his brilliant skating and deft puck handling — the worst of which should be weeded out by experience and maturity.
Nazem Kadri, with a goal and an assist last night, was as expected, inconsistent in his first NHL playoffs. Phil Kessel finally shook the Boston monkey off his back, scoring 4 goals and may forever have silenced comparisons to Tyler Seguin who, with just one assist, was a non-factor.
Other Leafs like Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk and the ailing Tyler Bozak whose faceoff abilities were sorely missed last night, had solid series as well.
But others like captain Dion Phaneuf raised more questions than answers. Questions about his health (was he injured?); his abilities, his on-ice decisions and his leadership. He remains an ongoing topic of concern in Leafland but if this meltdown showed anything, it was Toronto needs to get meaner and more skilled on the blue line.
Finally, we wouldn’t even be talking about a Game 7 if it weren’t for James Reimer who outplayed a pretty damn good goalie in Tuukka Rask in Games 4 and 5 especially. He’s still a work in progress but most are willing to grant that this series has shown he is a bonafide #1 that requires some work on elements of his game. We know what we have in Reimer now and that’s important information moving forward for this team.
A bewildering finish to an inspired playoff run. Let’s hope the experience becomes more of an asterisk in the franchise’s future and not some palm-sweating memory that haunts them for years.