Friday, April 27, 2018

The Leafs' Levels of Losing

Today marked the 51st edition of the celebration from much of the hockey world the day after the end of the Toronto Maple Leafs' season. This year's seven game series loss to the Bruins was creative in its execution, if nothing else. After being blown away in the first two games and then being down 3-1 in the series, the Leafs won two games in a row to force a deciding game without really playing a great game in the series.

In Game 7, they took advantage of early sloppy play by the Bruins and once-future-Leaf-goalie Tuukka Rask. The Leafs led 4-3 going into the third period, but they quickly gave up the lead and ended up losing 7-4. It was a disappointing loss, to be sure, but it did not seem as devastating as it could have been. I and other Leaf fans would far rather have seen them win, but it did not seem like the worst thing for them to lose.

But then my ruminations on this series loss made me start to wonder I would rank it in comparison to all of the other season-ending losses I have experienced over the past quarter-century as a Leafs fan. In that time, they have made the playoffs as many times as they missed out: twelve each, with the lockout marking the remaining entry.

So I decided, arguably somewhat masochistically, to rank each playoff loss (and one notable end to a regular season) to see where this series would rank in my personal tortured history as a Leafs fan. (This is the point at which I should probably give a not entirely facetious trigger warning to any Leafs fan. It's not as bad as it could be, but I'm still dredging up some ugly losses here.)

Special Mention: Los Angeles Kings / NHL conspiracy to make hockey succeed in the southern US, Western Conference Finals, 7 games, 1993. Although I still harbor residual bitterness toward Kerry Fraser, Gary Bettman, and the NHL for the fiasco of the Doug Gilmour high sticking non-call on Wayne Gretzky in the 1993 Conference Finals, I did not rank this series because I was not a Leafs fan at the time. That said, I could easily make an argument that I should have ranked it because I was cheering for the Leafs at the time anyway as a Canadian team, and that the fact that this was easily the Leafs' best chance for a Cup since 1967 would put it in my top three on merit alone, even if I do not have a lot of personal baggage tied up in this loss.

Tier V: No residual pain


13. Chicago Blackhawks, Western Conference Quarterfinals, 7 games, 1995. I'm not sure why this one doesn't stick out more to me now, since this was a particularly nasty series with a divisional rival with some bad blood between the two teams. Perhaps I just was not as aware of that history, but I have no feelings about this series at all. Two players from that Hawks team will come up later in this history, though - one in a positive light (goaltender Ed Belfour), and one far less favourable (Jeremy Roenick).

12. St. Louis Blues, Western Conference Quarterfinals, 6 games, 1996. This should probably be lower than the loss to the Hawks in the previous year, but my Leafs fandom was more well-established by this point and there was more of a sense of urgency to this loss, as the core of the team that had almost made it in 1993 was quickly fading. They ran into Curtis Joseph, which marked the second year in a row they would lose to a goalie who would later become a playoff hero for the team.

11. New Jersey Devils/New York Islanders, Last Day of the Regular Season, 2007. This is the only non-playoff loss on my list, but it deserves its spot. After the Leafs barely missed the playoffs the previous year, which was the year after the lockout, they entered the final day of the season with a chance to return to the post-season if the Devils beat the Islanders that day.

I still think there was some kind of collusion between the latter two teams, because the playoff-bound Devils rested several starters and lost in a shootout, which meant the Islanders made the playoffs. Of course, the Leafs had themselves lost in Long Island in the previous game when a win would have guaranteed them a playoff berth, but that last game still stung, especially because it would be another six years before Leaf fans would get to watch playoff hockey again.

Tier IV: It stings a little


10. Washington Capitals, Atlantic Division Semifinals, 6 games, 2017. Although the Leafs ultimately pushed the best regular season team as far as they could, they lost in six games, including three losses in overtime. What makes this loss easier is that the team had been the worst in the league one year previous; what makes it harder in retrospect is that they were so so very close to one of the greatest upsets of recent memory and maybe of all time.

9. Vancouver Canucks, Western Conference Finals, 5 games, 1994. This loss should probably be ranked a lot higher, but it's not for a few reasons: I was still a really new Leafs fan; the team was obviously gassed after two brutal rounds; and they lost to another Canadian team. What can I say? I was only eleven, and my senses of loyalty and long-suffering were still not very well developed at the time. It should probably sting more than it does, but then we wouldn't have had that classic Rangers-Canucks final.

8. Boston Bruins, Atlantic Division Semifinals, 7 games, 2018. This feels about right, all things considered. Sure, the team had the most wins and points in its history, but those numbers were artificially inflated from the loser point, so this was not the best Leafs team ever. It still stings to lose the series when they had the lead going into the third period of Game 7, but it still feels like this team is young enough that this was not their last chance. (More on that later.)

7. Buffalo Sabres, Eastern Conference Finals, 5 games, 1999. The Leafs had had a surprisingly solid first season in the Eastern Conference and their new building in front of new goalie Curtis Joseph. They had defeated Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in somewhat close series in the first two rounds, but they ran into the best goalie in the game in Dominik Hasek and this series was not even close. It was great to have the Leafs good again, and there was hope for the future that was (somewhat) justified by their performances over the next few years, so that's why this loss ranks somewhat lower than might otherwise be expected.

Tier III: That really smarts!


6. Philadelphia Flyers, Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, 7 games, 2003. This series was an all-out war that the Leafs had no business winning apart from the heroics of goalie Ed Belfour. They won two games in double-overtime and barely missed out on taking a 3-1 lead in Game 4 after a triple-overtime loss, all of which was mostly thanks to Belfour's incredible goaltending. I just really hated those Flyers teams, so this might be ranked so highly largely because of personal distaste.

5. New Jersey Devils, Eastern Conference Semifinals, 6 games, 2000. The Leafs had made it to the Conference Finals the year before, but the Devils were at the peak of their powers on their way to their second Cup. The Leafs had managed to split the first two games of the series before losing Game 5 at home and then managing to gift Martin Brodeur with the record for the fewest saves required for a shutout in a playoff game in the Game 6 series clincher. 

4. Philadelphia Flyers, Eastern Conference Semifinals, 6 games, 2004. This series is ranked this highly for three reasons. First, I had (and probably still have) a lot of residual bitterness against the Flyers for winning the previous year. Second, Jeremy Roenick scored the winner in OT. And finally, we knew that this was the true end of this era of Leafs success thanks to the impending lockout. I don't think any of us would have guessed that it would be so long until a return to anything resembling success, but the fact that this was the last Leafs playoff series for almost a decade makes it sting even more now than it did then.

Tier II: In serious pain


3. New Jersey Devils, Eastern Conference Semifinals, 7 games, 2001. This might be the one that really got away. After dispatching the Ottawa Senators in the first round, the Leafs led this series 3-2 with Game 6 at home, which they lost 4-2; they then went on to lose Game 7 by a 5-1 score to the eventual Finalists, which was even more embarrassing than the Game 6 drubbing the year before. They never had another chance at the Devils, although the Devils did win the Cup again in 2003, because nothing makes a loss worse than seeing the other team have even more success.

2. Carolina Hurricanes, Eastern Conference Finals, 6 games, 2002. After the Leafs lost star Mats Sundin in a brutal first round battle with the New York Islanders, the team gutted out series wins against the Islanders and the Senators in seven games each behind the heroics of Gary Roberts and Alyn McCauley. But they lost three games in overtime to the Hurricanes and just could not beat Arturs Irbe. This is the one that can only be rationalized through injury, and even then it just does not make sense, other than being the year that could have been.

Tier I: That Game


1.  Boston Bruins, Conference Quarter-Finals, 7 games, 2013. A loss that deserves its own level of pain. Sure, they were a young team that was performing way above expectations, but they had a 4-1 lead with under ten minutes to go and provided a perennial punchline for Leaf-haters everywhere. I don't know if it made it better or worse that the Bruins went on to the Final to lose to Chicago, but I will never forget the emotional roller coaster of this loss.

The windows of winning


To be honest, I was expecting that this exercise would be a lot more painful than it ended up being. Perhaps that is because I am far more personally removed from hockey and sports fandom in general over the past few years, but it is also likely somewhat due to the increased distance from some of those losses. Most of them seem "reasonable" in retrospect considering the teams to whom the Leafs lost, and although they all still sting, they make sense in the greater view of the narrative of hockey history - except for that loss to the Hurricanes in 2002.

But I also realized through looking through this quarter-century of playoff woe (as well as the success of other teams) that the window for possible success is a decade at most and probably closer to five or six years for most teams. The Devils had a window from 1994-2004, but they had an all-time goalie and two Hall of Fame defencemen. The Red Wings' window lasted from 1995-2004, but they had an unreal core of future Hall of Famers. The Dallas Stars, Buffalo Sabres, and Ottawa Senators also had success in that time period, and two of those three teams did not win a Cup.

In the decade and a bit since the lockout in 2005, there are many other examples of teams that could not win the Cup despite sustained success, even if they made it through to the Finals: the New York Rangers, or the San Jose Sharks, or the Vancouver Canucks. Or consider the Anaheim Ducks, who have not made it back to the Finals since winning in 2007, managing to lose in a seventh game on home ice after leading a series 3-2 for four consecutive years (now that's some pain right there). And then, of course, the playoff pain poster boy Washington Capitals have never managed to make it past the second round, despite having Alexander Ovechkin.

The point here is that although I do believe that the Leafs do have a few years left in their window for success that things can easily and quickly change for the worse. It is increasingly difficult to keep good teams together under a salary cap, and the Leafs are poised to have some troubles in a few years when Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, and Frederik Andersen are poised for significant raises from their currently relatively cheap contracts.

The Leafs have a bright future, especially now that their core players have experienced the anguish of a Game 7 loss, and there is every possibility that they will be contending for the Cup for the next five to eight years; then again, there is a possibility that they will lose early again in the next two years and that the 2020 lockout will effectively mark the end of this edition of the Leafs. I do not think that will be the case, but there's always the possibility that the window could be a lot smaller than you might otherwise think.

Conclusion


I think that this particular series loss to the Bruins did not affect me as much because I never really bought into this team as a contender. I know a lot of people who did, but I was not one of them. There were still too many better teams that the Leafs would have to leapfrog - all of whom are still playing in the second round - including two in their own division. It felt like this team was a couple of years of experience and a solid defenseman away from contending, and Game 7 confirmed that fact for me.

But I am in on this team for next year, which might be a recipe for more pain. I really like this group of players, and I am looking forward to watching them grow next year. But I also know that I am not looking forward to some of the future playoff losses that seem somewhat inevitable as they keep growing and learning how to win, even if they do it the hard way.

That said, I don't know what I would do if Vegas manages to make the Finals in their first year as a franchise, much less if they won the Cup. Then again, the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Cubs, and Houston Astros can overcome their baggage to win titles, so anything really is possible, and it is just as conceivable that these young Leafs use their pain to propel them to heights that no one under the age of fifty has ever seen; only time will tell, and I can only hope that I don't have to write another column like this in the future.

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