As we said Thursday night, as soon as Brayden Point stuffed home the overtime winner in Game 6, Leafs fans knew what was to come. It would be another loss at home in Game 7, but this time in front of a crowd that pretends to be hopeful but is really there to glorify their ailing crowd at ScotiaBank Arena. Some would tell you that this is the Leafs’ natural state, that their fans actually prefer to whine about perceived curses and unhappiness, and that an actual win would relieve them of what makes them feel like they excel. Normally I would tell you that.
So now begins what is probably the most annoying procedure in the hockey world, at least for everyone outside of the TO. It’s the Leafs’ self-examination/flagellation that always grabs more headlines than the actual playoff games that happen without them. “How is this affecting the Leafs?” has become a joke among hockey watchers whenever anything happens in the NHL, but it’s based on the truth that most of the noise and attention is focused on what the Leafs are going to do to win just one more game than anything else in the previous season .
The Leafs’ exercise in self-examination is mostly for the show itself, particularly among the Leafs “experts” who made themselves famous for being more cartoonish than the last guy to become famous for being cartoonish, from Dart Guy to to whatever variant, insane yelling in his basement/cave/bunker/cell adorned with Leafs merchandise between the conversations he has with his far too large collection of bobbleheads. Leafs Nation isn’t really interested in finding actual answers, just screaming in everyone’s face that they can’t find them and what a horrible way to live it is.
Because the thing is, there really aren’t any “answers” for the Leafs, at least none that aren’t already on the list. There’s a perception that every march to a championship should be linear, but that’s not always the case. It is actually rare. The Penguins went from losing the first round to losing finalists to champions. The Hawks went from playoffs to conference finalists to champions. There’s a neatness to this, a comfort that every fanbase thinks will come to them. But the Kings went from two first-round losses to champions.
The Leafs need look no further than the Capitals, who spent the first 12 years of Alex Ovechkin’s career trying to get out of the second round, and then after a year the Penguins were just exhausted and not quite the obstacle they once were were were. And then it just kept going.
Without the stepladder look of continuing to progress each year, it can appear as if no progress is being made. But for teams like the Leafs, the playoffs are zero-sum games. You either won the whole damn thing or you didn’t. If it’s the latter, does it really matter where on the calendar you fell short?
The admittedly nagging thing for The Nation is that they’re spitting out four games in a row (bubble doesn’t count for scoring purposes). But the leaves were essentially done with by geography. They lost to 107- and 112-point Bruins teams because the rather ridiculous NHL playoff system dictated who they had to play against. And they lost coin tosses to them because a game 7 in hockey can’t be more of one. Would losing to the Bruins in the second round or in the conference finals really make a big difference? No, no it wouldn’t. It might “feel” better, but it says nothing more than a first-round loss for a really good team.
Last year’s encounter with the Canadians certainly stands out, even if it was a Carey Price revival tour, but that can happen. Ask the Lightning sometime after 2019.
And the opposite of Saturday night is nothing more. The Leafs play in the toughest division of ice hockey, in the far superior conference. They pretty much even played the Lightning in Game 7. They pretty much even played them over seven games. Across seven games, the Lightning overshadowed the attempts (Corsi) share with a 50.1 percent mark. The expected goals percentage was again a hair’s breadth in favor of the Bolts at 50.3. More coin flip is not really possible.
Leafs fans may complain that they are sentenced to flee the Atlantic Division every year, but this time they would have played in an all-conference against… the Bruins. The East was loaded with eight 100-point teams. You can’t just leave the East. Again, where you perish in the bracket doesn’t matter
But hearing that is no consolation for either the team or the fans. There has to be an explanation to change something, something that gives hope next time. Certainly, the Leafs lack that “certain something” that gets them second in every Game 7 they play. It used to be the goalkeeper, but this time Jack Campbell gave up two goals. Perhaps he could have been better in Game 6 or 4, but that was made up for by efforts that saw the Leafs catch the Flash.
The best (and most entertaining) explanation you’ll hear from various blue-white outlets is that the Leafs have too many good players, i.e. the salary cap has limited what they can have at the end of the roster. But having too many good players didn’t seem to bother the Lightning or the Caps, who boasted similarly loaded top-6s in their wins. And as much as GM Kyle “Rivers” Dubas can be a navel shiver, he actually managed to find some budget-saving gems like Michael Bunting or Ilya Mikheyev this year. Maybe he needs another one or two, or maybe he’s not wasting any more spots on veterans chasing glory who can’t move or think like Jason Spezza or Wayne Simmonds.
But that’s movement at the edges, because that’s all the leaves need, if anything. They’re a 115-point team in a divisional gauntlet. They were the third-best offensive team over 82 games in expected goals per game at the same strength. They were the fourth best defensive team. There’s not really much else you can do, and the regular season is the largest sample size to evaluate.
Of course, that’s not enough for everyone in a Wendel-Clark jersey. In every logical sense, making big judgments across seven games is ridiculous, and seven games where you’ve looked at the double defense sense is ridiculous. Something has to be, right? Something that can be adjusted, something that they lack.
Well… there isn’t. Field the exact same team next year (which the Leafs can’t actually do thanks to the cap but go with me) and they’re just as likely to beat the Lightning as they are not. But there’s no consolation in accepting that hockey doesn’t give a damn what it thinks you’re entitled to or what makes sense as evidence of progress. Hockey is random and weird and often stupid and not everyone wins when they think it’s their turn. Ovechkin knew this when he waited 12 years. The Canucks and Flyers each got a look many years ago and haven’t really been heard from since. The Sharks spent a decade at or near the top of the standings. Another look at a finale. It sucks to know that sometimes you craps four times in a row, but it does happen. Your last roll of the dice says nothing about the next one.
Ice hockey is not linear. Ice hockey isn’t logical. There is no process in a game that can be so random. That won’t stop Leafs Nation from clamoring for answers and making sure we all hear them.