“You’re not special. So who you foolin’?” – Axl Rose
The Toronto Maple Leafs lost to the Boston Bruins in seven games. And really, that’s it. But for Leafs fans and media, it can’t be that simple. It has to mean something. Not just that, it has to epically mean something. Maybe even epically mean something. Because everything around the Toronto Maple Leafs has to be definitive or a referendum not just on the team, but on the entire sport and city and possibly society. Because to everyone associated with them in any way, the Leafs have to mean more. They can’t simply be just a hockey team, even though that’s what they are. They’re in Canada’s largest city, the only team there, and even though Canada is a vast nation they’ve dubbed themselves the epicenter and YOU WILL PAY ATTENTION. But it’s just not the case.
Take the opponent. Leafs Nation will have you believe that the Boston Bruins are some mythical monster conjured by some wizard twisted on quaaludes specifically to keep the Leafs down. But it’s not really the case. In truth, lots of teams lose to the same team twice in a row. Sure, Leafs fans will rush to remind everyone about 2013 (Sir, this is the DMV), but this is a completely different Leafs team. Jake Gardiner and Nazem Kadri were the only Leafs on that team and this one, as we know Kadri wasn’t even really on this one. That series doesn’t matter to this team. Fuck, the Rangers and Capitals played way more than this recently in the playoffs, and you don’t hear anyone describing it as fucking Helm’s Deep, do you? The Leafs were lucky to be in those playoffs at all, certainly never deserved to be in a Game 7 against a pretty-close-to-a-juggernaut Bruins team. It has nothing to do with this one or the last one.
But that’s not enough for THE NATION. They can’t just lose to a team. They can’t just play a pretty decent series against a pretty good team and lose a coinflip Game 7, which they all are. Because that would just make them normal. That would make them just another team. And they’re not! Don’t tell us they’re not! These are the Leafs AND THEY ARE SPECIAL WHY CAN’T YOU UNDERSTAND DON’T YOU SEE THE LATEST DIPSHIT IN SOME RIDICULOUS OUTFIT OR DOING SOME JACKASS STUNT THAT JUST GOT HIRED BY SPORTSNET?! CLEARLY WE’RE SPECIAL! PAT MY HEAD!
But they’re not.
Take a look at how they view their best players. Any player can go two or three games without scoring. No one scores a perfectly regimented one goal every two games. But Auston Matthews goes to or three without a goal and he’s not just going through the normal course, it’s a referendum on if he can handle playing at the epicenter of the universe and on his entire being and oh god maybe that contract was a terrible idea! He’s fine, it’s not, it’s just what happens. Patrice Bergeron didn’t score last night either. I guess he sucks too? But no, that can’t happen to the Leafs, because it’s no epic enough. It must be an exquisite choke-job that can only happen to players under the unique crush of being a Leaf. A crush that they themselves created.
Take the bleating about 1967. But no one really cares, because it’s not like there’s been a ton of close calls and heartbreaks. There was basically one on a missed call in 1993, and if you don’t know about it Down Goes Brown has been writing a weekly column about it for 12 years. And all that would have done is set the Leafs up to get stonewalled by the Canadiens and specifically Patrick Roy just like the Kings did, and imagine how much more unbearable both fanbases would be if that happened. All the talk of THE WALL here wouldn’t be pointed south but north and everyone would be in agreement on it construction.
The Leafs and everyone around them want to be the pre-2004 Red Sox, but also the Lakers. But there’s no Impossible Dream, there’s no Fisk Homer, there’s no Bob Stanley in 1986 (which is who Sox fans really hate, or did, instead of Buckner). There’s no story. And there’s no winning tradition. They want both, and they aren’t either. The Leafs are scenery, but scenery that wants to chew itself.
It can’t just be that Mike Babcock isn’t quite the coach they’d hoped. He arrived as a messiah, because only messiahs take the Leafs job (even if they can’t make toast). And now he’s a relic, a dunderhead past his sell-by date. Could it just be he’ll get out exactly what the roster you give him is capable of, no more no less? Give him the best roster in the competition (’08 or ’09 Wings or Team Canada) and he’ll win it or come within inches of it. Give him a mediocre team (pretty much every Wings team after those) and he’ll get you mediocre results. Give him a bad one and they’ll be bad. Give him a pretty good one and he’ll get you a loss against another pretty good team. But no, it can’t be that easy in Toronto. He must’ve lost something, or Toronto did something to him, or he’s been replaced by a collection of hyper-intelligent roaches wearing a Babcock suit a la MIB.
Kyle Dubas must be a genius…because he figured out to sign the most prized free agent in years? Keen strategy. But now if he doesn’t go out and bring PK Subban or Drew Doughty home (and I suppose there’s a symmetry to a rape-apologist acquiring a rapist) he won’t just be another GM who can’t get his team over the hump. He’ll be The Great Miss, the Great Lie Of Modernity, The One Who Let Us Down.
Even the Leafs playoff series drought isn’t that much. 15 years is a while, but it isn’t unheard of. The Panthers have a longer one, in fact. The Islanders had a longer one. Until this season the Avs were working on a 10-year drought. The Sabres haven’t won a series in 12. While it’s certainly one of the worst streaks around, it doesn’t stand on its own. Like just about anything else concerning the Leafs, if you really look beyond the noise.
It can just never be simple. This loss means that there have to be massive changes and new directions and severe internal study and possibly a few defenestrations. But we didn’t learn anything new about the Leafs. We knew they didn’t have a very good defense and a shaky goalie when things really mattered. Why’d they lose? Because they couldn’t keep the Bruins best players on a leash and then their goalie spit up a bad goal or two in Game 7. Which is what teams with bad blue lines and questionable playoff goaltending do. It doesn’t need to be decoded in the stars or a team on NASA engineers. It’s an easy fix, if you can find the players. But no, that explanation won’t do for a blue-clad mob that has to be more important than everyone. Their problems are bigger, don’t you see, and you wouldn’t understand. You’re not here, you don’t know what it means, you can’t, you won’t, it’s just different here.
It’s not, though. The Leafs are just a team. A pretty good one struggling a bit to take the last step. Happens a lot. Happens to most. Maybe they’ll get there, maybe they won’t. What it won’t be is unforeseen or unheralded or unparalleled. Nothing about the Leafs is. They may scream different, but it’s the truth.