Dear Toronto Maple Leafs,
It seems we are at a crossroads once again. Another season is in the books, and disappointment taints the air of the GTA more prevalently than ever. “This is the year” fans told their friends in earnest, and for once, they actually believed it. No more worries about the defence, no more questions in goal, and certainly no doubt in the caliber of skill exuding from the ‘Core 4’.
It didn’t even have to be Lord Stanley’s Cup. This team isn’t perfect. A simple trip to the final four would have been more than sufficient, a sure sign of progress given the demons of playoffs past. At a minimum, a first-round series win was all but expected. It would finally be an ounce of success to write home about. Something fans around the globe have been pining for since 2004, 1993, or even 1967. A simple cure for plaguing memories of first-round exits and humiliating losses to EBUGs and bottom-dwelling teams. A breath of fresh air in a COVID-filled world as hopes of imminently returning to any sense of normalcy continues to fade in Ontario with each passing month.
This was the year the stars were supposed to align. Fans from around the league continuously mocked and scorned the North Division. “That’s where all the crappy teams play.” “Surely, the league can’t be serious with this Mickey Mouse division.” Fans of every Canadian team were far from thrilled about these jeers, but Toronto fans also thought about the unique opportunity this season could bring. “Will this be the year the Leafs finally get out of the first round for the first time since 2004? After all, everyone seems to think it will be so damn easy.”
The regular season came to an end, and the headline-worthy matchup was set. The Buds vs. The Habs, set to meet in the playoffs for the first time in over 40 years. The puck dropped, and excitement immediately coarse through the veins of every Leafs fan. A fresh start in the playoffs. A chance to prove the team had added enough toughness and veteran leadership to compliment the young guns.
In half a period, that wave of happiness and hope came crashing down. Our captain, struggling to sit up, before ultimately leaving the ice on a stretcher. We always knew it was possible, but it felt unfair. Freak accidents and injuries are a natural part of sports, but this just felt like a curse. It drudged up a wealth of bad postseason memories, including Nazem Kadri‘s multiple suspensions and Jake Muzzin‘s early exit from last year’s play-in round against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Will the Leafs ever play a series without some form of detrimental controversy?
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Perhaps not, as such is the nature of playoff hockey. But enough was enough. Good teams play through tough injuries and find ways to win as depth players step into bigger roles. Game one went to the Habs, but no one blamed the Buds for the result following the traumatic incident they had witnessed. If playoff mulligans were a thing, Toronto got one from their fans, despite still trailing the series 1-0.
Win it for JT? The Leafs won three straight. Just one more win in three games? No problem. It’s definitely happening this time. No goals for Mitch Marner? No sweat. All lines are contributing, and Soupy’s been a brick wall back there. Game five ended in frustrating fashion, but whatever. Did we really think the Leafs had this in five? Montreal always play up for the rivalry. We’ll simply get them next game.
Another OT loss. Oh my God. This is actually happening again. Another game seven. Surely this is some kind of cruel joke? Now Muzzin is out of the lineup? JT is practicing in a normal jersey? Is he going to play somehow?! What the hell is going on? Game seven arrives. Both teams are playing scared. The Leafs’ top guns continue to feel the defensive blanket of Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher. It’s late in the third. Tyler Toffoli scores. My heart is in my throat. I can’t believe it.
This team was supposed to compete for a cup, and they can’t close out a series against a team that technically finished the regular season several games below .500? Auston Matthews is the hottest scorer in the league, but he can’t overcome Danault? An all-too-familiar feeling creeps in. This roster was supposed to be built with the finest mahogany, and it blew away like kindling twigs.
There’s always next year. But is there? How do you change? Who do you blame? Do you look at all of Boston and Washington’s years of postseason misery, before success, as solace? Did Carey Price simply stand on his head? Was it too much to ask Alex Kerfoot or Nick Foligno to play 2C? Did Toronto overuse Alex Galchenyuk, or underuse Rasmus Sandin? Should Nick Robertson have gotten a crack like Cole Caufield?
I’m trying to be patient, I really am. I know that I don’t understand all of the intricacies of playing in the league. Hell, I never had a shot at the NHL, as much as I liked to dream about it. But where does it end? How much more can we take? Will I ever be able to believe in a ‘next year’ ever again? My dad is in his 50s, and has been patient for a lifetime. The Leafs last won the cup when he was two years old. Will that be me a couple of decades from now? I sure hope not. Good luck this summer. We’re all counting on you.
A Disgruntled Toronto Maple Leafs Fan