As we said on Thursday night, as soon as Brayden Point stuffed home the overtime winner in Game 6, Leafs fans knew what was coming. It would be another Game 7 loss, at home, but this time in front of a pretending-to-be-hopeful-but-really-there-to-glorify-their-suffering ScotiaBank Arena crowd. Some would tell you this is the Leafs’ natural state, that their fans actually prefer to be wailing about perceived curses and misfortune and that actually winning would relieve them of what makes them feel like they stand out. I would usually tell you that, in fact.
So now begins what is just about the most annoying proceeding in the hockey world, at least for everyone outside the T.O. It’s the Leafs self-examination/flagellation, which always gets more headlines than the actual playoffs games going on without them. “How does this affect the Leafs?” has become the joke amongst hockey observers when anything happens in the NHL, but it’s based in the truth that most of the noise and attention is directed to what the Leafs will do to win just one more game than they did the previous season than anything else.
The exercise of the Leafs’ self-examination is mostly for the show itself, especially amongst the Leafs “experts” that have made themselves famous by being more cartoonish than the last guy who became famous for being cartoonish, from Dart Guy to whatever variation of lunatic yelling in his Leafs merch-adorned basement/den/bunker/holding cell between conversations he has with his far too large bobblehead collection. Leafs Nation isn’t really interested in finding actual answers, just in screaming in everyone’s face about how they can’t find them and what an awful way to live it is.
Because the thing is, there aren’t really any “answers” for the Leafs, at least not any that aren’t on the roster already. There’s a perception that any march to a championship is supposed to be linear, but that’s not always the case. It rarely is, in fact. The Penguins went from first-round loss, to losing Finalist, to champs The Hawks went from out of the playoffs, to conference finalist, to champ. There’s a neatness to that, a comfort that every fan base thinks will come to them. But the Kings went from two first-round losses to champs.
The Leafs need to look no further than the Capitals, who spent the first 12 years of Alex Ovechkin’s career not being able to get out of the second round, and then one year the Penguins were simply exhausted and were no longer quite the obstacle they once were. And then it just kept going.
Without the step-ladder look of further advancement every year, it can look like no progress is being made. But for teams like the Leafs the playoffs are zero-sum games. Either you won the whole fucking thing or you didn’t. If it’s the latter, does it really matter where in the calendar you came up short?
The agonizing thing for The Nation, admittedly, is coughing up four straight Game 7s (the bubble doesn’t count for evaluation purposes). But the Leafs were essentially done in by geography. They lost to 107- and 112-point Bruins teams, because the pretty laughable NHL playoff system dictated that’s who they had to face. And they lost coin flips to them, because a Game 7 in hockey can’t really be more of one. Would losing to the Bruins in the second round or conference final really make much of a difference? No, no it wouldn’t. It might “feel” better, but it doesn’t say anything different than a first round loss does to a really good team.
Last year’s balls-up to the Canadiens certainly sticks out, even if it was a Carey Price Revival Tour, but that can happen. Ask the Lightning about 2019 sometime.
And Saturday night’s reverse is nothing more. The Leafs play in the toughest division in hockey, in the far superior conference. They played the Lightning pretty much even in Game 7. They played them pretty much even over seven games. Over seven games, the Lightning shaded the attempts-share (Corsi) with a 50.1 percent mark. The expected-goals share was again every so tilted to the Bolts by a whisker at 50.3. You can’t really get more coin flip.
Leafs fans may bemoan being sentenced to having to escape the Atlantic Division every year, but a straight conference set-up this time around would have seen them play…the Bruins. The East was loaded with eight 100-point teams. You can’t simply walk out of the East. Again, the location of where you perish in the bracket doesn’t really matter
But hearing that is of no comfort to the team or the fans. There has to be some explanation, something to change, something to provide hope the next time around. Surely the Leafs lack that “certain something” that sees them come up second in every Game 7 they play. It used to be the goalie, but this time around Jack Campbell gave up two goals. Maybe he could have been better in Game 6 or 4, but those were made up for by efforts that saw the Leafs thwack the Lightning.
The best (as in most entertaining) explanation you’ll hear from various blue and white outlets is that the Leafs have too many good players, i.e. the salary cap has restricted what they can have on the bottom of the roster. But having too many good players didn’t seem to bother the Lightning or the Caps, who boasted similarly-loaded top sixes when they won. And as much as GM Kyle “Rivers” Dubas can be a navel-gazing dope, he actually managed to find some budget saving gems this year like Michael Bunting or Ilya Mikheyev. He may need one or two more, or maybe stop wasting spots on glory-chasing vets who can’t move or can’t think anymore like Jason Spezza or Wayne Simmonds.
But these are moves on the margins, because that’s all the Leafs need, if that. They’re a 115-point team in a gauntlet of a division. They were the third best offensive team over 82 games in terms of expected goals for per game at even-strength. They were the fourth-best defensive team. You can’t really do much more, and the regular season is the largest sample size to evaluate.
That’s not enough for everyone in a Wendel Clark jersey, obviously. In any logical sense, passing large judgements over seven games, and seven games they eyeballed the two-time defending sense is ludicrous. There has to be something, right? Something that can be adjusted, something they’re missing.
Well…there isn’t. Roll out this exact same team next year (which the Leafs can’t actually thanks to the cap but go with me) and they’re just as likely to beat the Lightning as they’re not. But there’s no comfort in accepting that hockey doesn’t really give a shit about what you think you’re entitled to or what makes sense as evidence of progress. Hockey is random and weird and often stupid and not everyone gets to win when they think it’s their turn. Ovechkin knew that as he waited 12 years. The Canucks and Flyers each got one look many years ago, and really haven’t been heard from since. The Sharks spent a decade at or near the top of the standings. Again, one look at a Final. It sucks to know that sometimes you crap out four straight times, but that does happen. Your last roll of the dice says nothing about the next.
Hockey isn’t linear. Hockey isn’t logical. There is no process to a game that can be so random. That won’t stop Leafs Nation from clawing for answers loudly, and making sure we all hear them.