Sunday, May 30, 2021

So About Those Leafs...

 They lost last night.

Of course they did. 

They were up three games to one in a best of seven series. Now it's one game, winner take all...and I'm in more trouble than they are. To explain why, I have to backtrack a little. Please pardon me if you are not a hockey fan. I'll keep this very brief, giving you just the three salient points: 

1) The Toronto Maple Leafs have been knocked out of the playoffs in the first round in four of the past five years. (Last year, they technically didn't even make the playoffs). 

2) The talent level on this team is such that they should have at least advanced a round or two over that time. This is not me talking out of my ass: this is an extremely popular view among Leaf fans, hockey experts, and even fans of other teams. 

3) They smoked the team they're playing all through the regular season.

When the Leafs went down 2-0 last night, I clicked the tab closed and announced I'm never watching hockey again. This is hyperbole and I know it's hyperbole when I announce it. The exact level of hyperbole depends on just how badly they're shitting the bed. There is an element of reverse psychology to this: I get to convincing myself they're losing not because they're being outcoached or outplayed but because Ken Breadner of Waterloo Ontario is watching them. So I snap the game off, and like as not five minutes later I'll be checking the score to see if it worked. I am not the only fan who does this. Kathy, who kept watching, chided me for my lack of faith, and sure enough Jason Spezza, who hasn't taken a shift off all series, scored to make it 2-1 Habs, then T.J. Brodie tied it. Just like the game before, this was headed to overtime. 

But I snapped it off, announced I'm not watching hockey ever again...and goddamnit I meant it. I let loose with a torrent of abuse. I can't call them untalented: that's just the thing. I have cheered on some really, really bad Leaf teams over the years, the kinds of teams that are eliminated from playoff contention before the anthem's echoes die away in the first game of the season. Those teams were kind of fun to cheer, believe it or not, because there was zero expectations. A win felt like a playoff series win. And there were almost always some decent players trapped on those awful squads, so there was no shortage of individual accomplishments to cheer.

But then the Leafs got much better. I detailed the transformation in the last hockey post I wrote. The biggest thing you need to know in summary is that this year's team is stacked. The GM went out and credibly addressed every need we had. Going into the playoffs, anyone objectively looking at this Leafs team would see a lethal offence at 5v5 (with a very puzzling and troubling black hole where the power play should be). They'd see the best defensive corps this team has had in almost thirty years. And they'd see a goalie who, while not playoff-tested, put together a top-five performance over the shortened season...starting with eleven straight wins, a league record. The one glaring weakness was physicality, and to address it the Leafs acquired players like Wayne Simmonds and Mike Foligno. They knew, as every NHL fan knows, that it's a different game when the playoffs start.

But it shouldn't be THIS different.

The Leafs are supposed to be the better team. I mean, everyone said so. But this series is going seven and that means in reality, these teams are evenly matched. That's a very hard pill to swallow: the team you watched finish first in its division, with a franchise record winning percentage, is on par with a team that barely squeaked into the playoffs?  Even more distressing: After five years, we're still this bad? Really?

Since it couldn't be the talent -- our top scorer outscored theirs by a very wide margin, and our team stats were better than theirs in virtually every particular -- it had to be the heart. The guts. Or more precisely, the lack of them. I went on a bit of a tirade to this end and was stopped dead in my tracks by Kathy telling me (a) she abhorred my behaviour and (b) I was clearly not a real fan of the game.

(B) chafed mightily. I have been watching hockey since I was four -- and as I said, I have cheered on some ridiculously awful teams. I genuinely appreciate skilled plays no matter who makes them and I don't hate any NHL players simply because they play for another team. I'm not a fan of Philadelphia in any way shape or form and even I will concede it's not a player's fault he plays for that franchise. I thought my fan credentials were spiffy. But Kathy contended I lacked sportsmanship because I was calling my team heartless and gutless. "With fans like you, who needs enemies?", she said.

Oh, Jesus, Ken, tread softly here. Because (a). I am clearly in the wrong again here, even if I can't see why, and if she's throwing around words like 'abhorrent' before I even explain myself...maybe I'd best not explain myself.

Like I could ever shut up when I'm supposed to. I kept saying how I only wanted to see them, you know, make a fucking EFFORT. "Are you telling me they just skated out to center ice, sat down and stuck their thumbs up their asses?" she asked. Okay, no, what I wanted to see was the team play up to its potential. Is that too much to ask? I didn't think it was. 

Travis Dermott was the immediate scapegoat last night, turning over the puck in overtime leading to the winning goal for the Canadiens. He'd played a flawless game before that. Jack Campbell has been lights-out for us: he's the only reason it was "only" 2-0 Montreal at the end of the first period -- and in game four Campbell let in not one but two uncharacteristic stinkers. If it's not one thing, it's another: this team seems totally incapable of playing past their mistakes. Worse, they don't start games on time. This has been an ongoing issue for about a decade. Mitch Marner called out the team last night -- just as he did in the play-ins last year, for the same reason. I used to think they just figured they could turn it on and score at will, and to be fair they kind of can. But it really is a different game in the playoffs. 

As a fan (if I can be called one), am I entitled to a decent, full game effort from the team I follow? And if I don't get it, am I allowed to ask why? Those were my questions. 

And then the emotion leached away as I slept last night. Numbers don't just rob all the joy out of life: they're good for reducing ALL emotion.

Auston Matthews scored on sixteen percent of his shots in the season. He's scoring on less than one percent of them now, while still generating the same high-danger chances he always has at roughly the same frequency.

We are missing John Tavares, who is a linchpin on our second line, forcing lineup shuffles.  Tavares would have provided an expected five points in this close series -- quite likely enough to win the Leafs at least one of the last two games. And yes, "expected points" is a legitimate hockey stat now. Don't even think of asking me how it's calculated.

Fans in the stands. If I were the Leafs, I would have protested this mightily. When Québec announced it would allow 2500 fans into the building if the series went six games, I told everyone then it better not go six games. It's been fourteen months since these players have been cheered on in a way they could hear. You don't think that went to the Habs' legs? It clearly did, they came out barnstorming -- and anybody could have predicted that they would. Of course we'd be back on our heels, any team would be in that situation, and our goalie stood on his head to withstand the storm. 

We're doing so many things right. It's just deflating to be burned for every little thing we do wrong. Stabler heads than mine have mused about curses and hexes and bad juju. I know this team has one more chance to change the narrative. Let's see if they can do it. And if they don't, well...'s just a game. 


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