By Sean McIndoe
Feb 22, 2020 214
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
I’ve been a Leafs fan my whole life, which means I’ve seen a lot of really embarrassing losses.
I’ve seen It Was 4-1. I’ve seen them get six shots in an elimination game. I’ve seen the 12-1 loss in Pittsburgh. I’ve seen them lose 8-0 in the playoffs, at home, while fans rained garbage and jerseys on the ice. I’ve seen the paper bags. I’ve seen the waffles.
I thought I had seen it all. Then I saw the Leafs lose to a 42-year-old Zamboni driver.
This one was … well, it was different. I’m not sure yet if it’s worse. I know that’s the reaction you probably want, and maybe it’s the right one. I’m still mulling it. The competition is stiff.
Here’s the thing: Strip away all the history and the baggage and the punchlines, and you can at least kind of explain this one. The Leafs were down 3-1 when David Ayres came in midway through the second, after both Hurricanes goalies on the roster were injured to trigger the NHL’s rarely seen emergency backup goalie rule. They were down 4-1 before they got anywhere near him. Their own goaltender ended up giving up six. They were playing a really good team that knows how to squeeze the life out of a game, and went all-out to do exactly that. It’s embarrassing, sure, but maybe it makes a certain kind of sense, if you ignore all the other stuff.
But you can’t ignore all the other stuff, because this is Toronto, and all the other stuff has been earned. This was a disaster. And it’s the sort of disaster that can be a turning point, not just in a season but for a team that was supposed to have been built for the long-term. This isn’t the kind of loss that you can shake off with a strong effort the next time out. This is the kind of loss that sticks.
This year’s Leafs have already had the narratives built up around them. They don’t work hard. They don’t do the little things you need to do. They put together a strong effort, like they did on Thursday against the Penguins, and then they pat themselves on the back and hang a Mission Accomplished banner and go back to doing it the easy way. They disappear when it counts, because when it counts things get hard and this team can’t handle that.
Is all of that true? Is any of it? I’m not sure it matters. Not after that game. You don’t want to be labeled as the team that chokes? Don’t choke. The Leafs choked hard against a Zamboni driver, so here we are.
So let’s start with what we know for sure: You’re going to hear about this game for a long time. If you’re a Leafs fan and you’re sick of stale It Was 4-1 jokes nearly seven years later, I have good news for you. You’re about to hear some fresh material. On the long and winding road of people all around the sports world pointing and laughing at the Toronto Maple Leafs, we just planted a new signpost.
So now what?
This game is going to be a turning point. That goes without saying. And who knows, maybe it turns out to be the good kind. Maybe they rally around this moment. They could listen to a few days’ worth of hand-wringing over how they’re doomed and then go out and beat the Lightning this week, and then take a crucial two points against the Panthers. Come home to beat the Canucks, then go out to California to play three terrible teams, and now it’s a win streak and you’re home and clear in the playoff race, and someday we all have a good laugh about that whole backup goalie thing.
That could happen. A lot of things could happen. We live in a world where a Zamboni driver just won an NHL game on Hockey Night in Canada, so you never say never.
But here’s what else could happen: This team could prove everyone right and fold. If the Leafs thought this town was hard on them before, well, let’s watch the meltdown over the next few days. It’s going to be brutal.
And it should be brutal, because it’s not just about the Maple Leafs losing. Sometimes, the how really is more important than the what. Goaltending is voodoo, and if some random no-name stands on his head, that’s hockey. But that’s not what happened. Full credit to Ayres, but he didn’t steal the game. He didn’t have to. After two early goals, the Leafs barely tested him. As the game wore on and everyone realized where we were headed, they looked like they wanted to find a hole to crawl into. All of them, including the big stars who are supposed to form the core of a Cup winner and are paid that way, plus a little extra. Maybe they didn’t quit, but they damn sure disappeared, and this is the NHL so there isn’t much of a difference.
So again, now what? Do you just close the book on this vision of the team and blow it all up? That would be an overreaction, of course, but if you’re going to have the sort of loss that makes a front office want to quit on you then 48 hours before the trade deadline is a hell of a time to do it. You can’t say they don’t have a sense of the moment.
But no, you don’t blow it up, because you couldn’t do that right now even if you wanted to. And you shouldn’t want to, because it’s one dumb game, and there’s still a playoff race where you’re more likely than not to earn a spot. You keep going. And then … well, then you either miss the playoffs or you make it, and if you make it you run into the Bruins or the Lightning, and it’s not hard to figure out where that goes.
Eventually the season ends, and unless there’s a parade involved, everyone looks back at the Zamboni goalie game and asks if you need to start all over again.
And that’s where this one really hurts. Because that It Was 4-1 team absolutely did need to start all over again. Instead they got even dumber and doubled down and it was a disaster. That 8-0 team was legitimately terrible. The 12-1 loss inspired Cliff Fletcher to pull the trigger on the Doug Gilmour trade a week later. The waffles were right.
But this team was supposed to be good. And even though nobody wants to hear it right now, I think it is good. Maybe this isn’t the Leafs’ year, but the foundation is there, and this can still end well someday. Unlike all those other teams, this one has a plan, and smart people in charge, and more talent than any Leafs roster in years. The pieces are there, even if they haven’t been arranged into place yet. All you have to do is watch them at their best, and you know that they’re on the right track.
Only then they lose to a Zamboni driver and you think, maybe not.
That’s life as a Leafs fan. And it’s why this loss really might be worse than all those others. Those losses came from teams that were supposed to lose because they were built to lose, so when the 18-wheeler went off the cliff that was probably for the best. This team was supposed to be different.
On Saturday night, it wasn’t different. It was the same old Leafs, 50 years and running, providing yet another kick in the gut for the fans and yet another punchline for everyone else. Get the paper bags and the waffles. Or just toss the jersey as far as you can and say that you’re done with them, even if you know you’ll be back. We’ve all had plenty of practice.
Or you could stick around and hold out hope that this time might be different, and this time the speed bump is at least located in the middle of a road that’s actually headed in the right direction.
It might be. Who knows. Dumber things have happened. You can’t say that the Toronto Maple Leafs ever run out of ways to surprise us.