And so it's time for a blog only my father will read.
Well, maybe not ONLY my father, but...yes, only my father. This one's for you, Dad.
You are the reason I bleed Maple Leaf blue. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of sitting on your lap during Hockey Night in Canada, learning to follow the puck around the ice. And, as always, there's music. The first time I heard Queen's "We Will Rock You" was in 1977 as the hated Habs won the Stanley Cup for the umpteenth time. The beat of that immediately caught my attetion; the fade in to "We Are The Champions" transfixed me. Until that moment, I didn't know a song could be...two songs.
I said "hated Habs" above there because I'm supposed to, as a Leaf fan. I'm supposed to loathe Montréal and everything about it; ditto Ottawa. But dad? You are a rare breed of hockey fan and you taught me to be one, too. You may be a Leaf fan, but first and foremost you are a fan of the GAME.
I don't hate Montréal. I mean, there are some things I can't stand about a subset of their fanbase (snotty) and their goddamned soccer chant can go away any time. But the team itself?
Right now I kind of feel bad for them. They resemble the Leafs circa oh too many years: some practically untradeable contracts, searching for a team identity, some skill but not enough. Carey Price is one of the all-time great goalies, but oh dear, 2026? He's already losing a step. That said, I can't help but love the guy. He's personable, self-deprecating and funny as hell.
The last time the Leafs were a consistent playoff team, they relished beating their provincial rivals, the Ottawa Senators. It was so funny (if you were a Leafs fan): the Sens would sweep the season series, only to be swept themselves in the playoffs. Take that, you vile Sens!
There was an incident where Mats Sundin, the captain of the Maple Leafs at the time, was infuriated when his stick broke as he was going for a one-timer. Disgusted, he threw the handle into the crowd, and (rightly) got a penalty for doing it. He was also suspended for one game, for which the opponent happened to be Ottawa. During that game, with Ottawa up 7-1, Daniel Alfredsson, the captain of the Senators, made as if to throw his stick into the crowd, clearly mocking Sundin, and thus incurred the ire of every Leafs fan then or since.
Except this one.
Sundin and Alfredsson were best friends. Apparently nobody knew that, or cared. Mats thought what Daniel did was funny. So did I, although as Harry Neale noted, up 7-1 maybe isn't the best time to rub it in like that.
I don't hate Ottawa, either, even if I'm supposed to. I feel really bad for them, actually, because they're selling off players for pennies on the dollar and deliberately screwing over their fan base. It reminds me of one Harold Ballard, may he rot in hell.
I DO hate Philadelphia. Fuck Philly. The Broad Street Bullies may be ancient history, but the fan base wants them back. They're still the only fans I've seen cheer an opponent's injury and boo when he regained his skates. That kind of thuggery I have no time for.
So. Let's talk about this Leafs team.
The general consensus is that they're not quite ready. I'd agree with that, with the proviso that they're in that second tier of teams that can and often do win Stanley Cups if things fall their way. Just for the Leafs to get to this level is remarkable, considering where they finished two years ago.
A lot of that has to do with the Big Three, of course: Matthews, Nylander and Marner. The latter led the team in scoring this year only because Matthews missed twenty games, and Nylander became a more well-rounded player but took a step back on offence this year. Credit HAS to go to Freddie Andersen, too, or maybe first; the Leafs still face far too many shots and they rely on him to stop them. He usually does. There will be some quiet Vezina consideration for him this year.
Hockey is a team sport, though, and three or four players aren't going to get you into the playoffs. The supporting cast for the Leafs has been very good to excellent, going from the names you know (Gardiner, Rielly) to ones you might not (Dermott, Kapanen). Special mention to Curtis McElhinney, aka "McBackup", who rarely played but played lights out when he did. And of course credit has to go to Mile Babcock, who is earning every penny of his contract. The way he handles the Toronto media is worth that contract alone; the way he keeps his team centered, even more so.
The media are portraying this as a chance to avenge the Bruins' nightmarish comeback in game 7 of 2012. I was in my French class at the time and enquired about the score. "It's 4-1", said one of my classmates. "No, wait, 4-2."
"Just you wait," I said. "I'll get home and it will be 4-4 going into overtime, and the Leafs will lose 5-4."
And so it came to pass.
The thing is, there aren't many Leafs players left from that debacle. They were the core of the team at that time and now they've moved down the depth chart a notch (although James van Riemsdyk did score 36 goals in limited minutes, to lead the team). Bozak is no longer a first line center. There has been a major injection of talent and structure, and these Leafs can flat out fly and score at will. Their power play is LETHAL.
But Boston is no pushover. In point of fact, or in fact of points, the Bruins finished ahead of Toronto in the standings. They're not as fast, but they compensate by being positionally sound all over the ice. Wayne Gretzky once famously said he didn't go where the puck was, he went where it was going to be. That works defensively as well, and it can frustrate the hell out of a speedy Leafs team.
Also, the Bruins are something the Leafs emphatically are NOT: physical. Toronto has a couple of players who know how to throw a good check, and Kadri plays his best in a state of high piss-off, but overall, the Leafs can expect to take a lot more punishment than they dish out. That will add up over the course of what most pundits agree will be a long series; if the Leafs do emerge victorious, they're very likely to be banged up in the process.
Boston's first line is scary good; after that, there's a bit of a drop-off. The Leafs have elected to spread their talent out--and that works to their advantage. The starting goaltending is essentially a wash. The Leafs do have one thing Boston doesn't: Mike Babcock....one of the best big-game coaches in modern league history. And he, I think, will actually win them the series.
The general critical consensus favours the Bruins, but not by a wide margin. Because I'm a Leaf fan, and because of Babcock, I'm going to make my prediction here:
LEAFS IN 7
Drop the puck, and let's get the second season underway!