Saturday, April 30, 2022

I had another blog to write...

 ...but this is my 1967th entry since I started this thing almost eighteen years ago. That means I have to write about the Leafs again. Sorry, folks: I can't change the rules here. 


So you remember last year? When I waxed rhapsodic about the team additions and suggested we'd  never see an easier path to the Cup, only to have Carey Price stone us? We technically didn't even make the playoffs. And everybody laughed at me, and them.

Hindsight is usually 20/20 (depending on the hind you've sighted)...and I shouldn't have been so sanguine last year, let alone cocky. The Leafs limped to the end of the season. Riley Nash, the 4C we acquired  to shut down the other team (because he'd done such a great job of shutting us down the year before)...was badly hurt and barely played; Nick Foligno, son of a fan favourite and the captain of the Blue Jackets, we rented and he was badly hurt as well. And then of course OUR captain was knocked out of the series early with a concussion. Once that happened, the series was over. 

It didn't help that "Jumbo" Joe Thornton, who came to us to win the Cup he'd never won anywhere else...showed why he never won a Cup anywhere else. He nonchalanted his way through those seven games with a "what, me worry?" attitude and worse, it infected much of the squad, including our best playmaker, Mitch Marner. Cue ignominy.


Cue 2021-2022.

Statistically, the best regular season in the 104 year history of the team. Led by Auston Matthews, who scored 60 goals and finished with his second consecutive Rocket Richard trophy, we finished with a record of 53-21-7 for 115 points, another team record. Freaking awesome. We should be able to stomp the comp we're about to face, right! I mean, we can't get too confident based on what Montréal did to us last year, but when you smoke the regular season this well, you get to face...

...the repeat Cup champions? Going for a threepeat? 

Life is NOT FAIR.

Actually, the conference we're in is historically strong. Every one of the eight teams that made the playoffs on our side got 100 points or better. That's never happened before. The path to the Cup is BRUTAL for anyone in the East this year. There are going to be teams eliminated in the first round that shouldn't be. 

I hope one of them isn't the Toronto Maple Leafs. They're the only team facing two teams in the first round: the Lightning, yes, but also the Head Demons. Those bastards can play. 

All Kyle Dubas, the GM of the Leafs could do, he did. This year's crop to push us over the top includes:

  • Mark Giordano, who gave up the captaincy of the Seattle Kraken and demanded a trade to Toronto. He partnered with T.J. Brodie for several years in Calgary and at 38, he's still got game. He's been an incredible mentor to Timothy Liljegren
  • Michael Bunting, who would be in serious consideration for the Calder as rookie of the year were he not 26 years old and if Moritz Seider in Detroit wasn't such a beast
  • Ilya Lyabushkin, one of the best D-men on a terrible Arizona team, who has injected our D-corps with some snarl and who has actually produced a few points for us, a nice bonus
  • David Kämpf, who is the 3C this team has lacked since the 1990s
Add in career years from

  • Ilya Mikheyev, who had a solid rookie campaign, sustained a horrific hand injury, and now has finally more than fully recovered. Word was he had demanded a trade earlier to somewhere he might be able to move up the lineup. He's currently on the second line and they're glad to have him. Speed to burn. 
  • Pierre Engvall, a depth piece who has blossomed this year into a little mini Mikheyev. He's discovered how to use his speed, and his reach, to create odd man rushes the other way, and he's even found some finish
  • William Nylander, who polarizes this fanbase because he occasionally takes games off. That said, he was one of the few who never took a second off last year in those seven games against the Habs. He's finished just shy of a point per game and when he's on, he's dynamic as all hell
  • and of course, speaking of dynamite, the aforementioned Matthews and Marner. Pure magic. Auston is the first player since 2012 to notch sixty scores; the last guy who did it just happens to be the captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Steven Stamkos, who is still fearsome ten years on. (He's got 30 goals in his last 15 games played, more than anyone else over that span.) Marner, who was crucified without wood or nails for his Thornton-inspired disappearing act last year, is dialled in this time around, I can assure you. Despite sitting on 97 points, with a reasonable chance to get 100 in the last game of the season tonight, he chose to sit out and rest and prepare. I think that says something. Whatever happens this year, it has been an absolute joy to watch those two feed off each other. 
  • Jack Campbell. "Soup" went cold for about six weeks immediately following the All-Star game that he started, but he seems to be on track now, at just the right time. A lot is going to rest on Campbell. If he plays as he can, the Leafs probably win this series, albeit won't be easy. If he falters, we're done. Pressure...want some?
Sheldon Keefe, who coached the team to its best finish ever, sure does. Asked how he felt about facing Tampa, he said "the harder, the better. That is what we need." BRING IT ON. 

We have home ice this time round, so games 1, 2, and 7 (if necessary, and it likely will be) are within the friendly confines of what I still want to call Maple Leaf Gardens. (WHY didn't Maple Leaf buy it all those years ago? Would have been a great joke when Matthieu Schneider patrolled the blue line for us....)

For the moment, the fanbase seems to have its mind in the right place. I've seen a marked reduction in fan toxicity this season, which isn't to say it won't rear its ugly head the instant somebody perceives a less than adequate effort. We are slight underdogs according to the Vegas odds and I don't think those odds take the Head Demons into consideration. 

Game one goes Monday. I parlayed my best ranking ever at work into a 12:30-9pm shift, the earliest shift available with weekends off. It means I will at least get to watch third periods. (We won't even bring up overtimes because do you want my heart to explode?)


May the best team in blue and white, captained by the center wearing #91 from Toronto, win!

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