On May 14, 2013, I woke up with a pounding head, a swollen foot, and a broken heart. The night before, the Toronto Maple Leafs coughed up a 4-1 lead to the Boston Bruins in the dying minutes of a first-round Game 7, losing 5-4 in overtime.
My best friend Luka and I had made a dubious pregame pact to down two shots of tequila every time the Leafs scored, meaning that the moment Patrice Bergeron buried the golden goal we were primed and ready to make horrible, no good, very bad decisions. Screaming was involved. So were an abandoned construction site, more tequila, and haphazard kicking (hence the foot).
Why were we so pissed? It wasn’t just that the Leafs had crashed out of the playoffs in the most calamitous and humiliating fashion possible. We were angry because all our greatest fears about that particular Toronto team — led by captain Dion “Pylon” Phaneuf and the lovable but mercurial Phil Kessel — had been confirmed: they were fragile, ill-constructed, a toppled house of cards. It was the end of something that had never really begun at all.
This morning, I woke up with a smile on my face. Last night, the Toronto Maple Leafs gave up a soft overtime goal, handing the Washington Capitals both a Game 6 victory and the overall series. It helped that I’d wisely avoided any and all interactions with my old pal Jose Cuervo, but my relative good mood today can mostly be chalked up to one simple fact: these Leafs are not those Leafs.
I knew it, as Wendel Clark did, from the second period of the first game. This is a team built around a legitimate star in Auston Matthews, who became just the sixth teenage rookie in NHL history to hit the 40-goal mark. Actually, scratch that — they’re built around three legitimate stars, when you consider Papi’s Bon Jovi duet partner Mitch Marner and his Tiger Beat heartthrob linemate William Nylander.
The key word in that last paragraph is “built.” Team president Brendan Shanahan and general manager Lou Lamoriello have, using reason and logic, constructed a squad from the ground up. They’ve assembled parts that fit together, make sense together — something their win-now predecessors never attempted. They’ve got Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev holding down the blue line. There’s Frederik Anderson standing tall in net. Uncle Leo and Brian Boyle providing a veteran presence. Last regime holdovers Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri finally getting a real chance to shine. Endlessly quotable bruiser Matt Martin keeping all the kids safe. And Mike Babcock — a man who doesn’t mince words and likely knows how to use a toaster — running the whole show.
They’re ahead of schedule. They weren’t supposed to make the playoffs, let alone take the President’s Trophy-winning Caps to six games — five of which went to overtime. Hell, thanks to their paltry attempts at growing playoff beards, we now know that half the Leafs’ roster has yet to even reach puberty. All of this was just bonus, and we got two unforgettable game-winners, a Dart Guy, and a fist-pumping old man out of it. Not a bad haul, all things considered.
Last night wasn’t a culmination. No bubbles were burst. Instead, it was further proof that we’re on the cusp of something real, something thrilling, something good. This is a beginning. Leafs Nation is just waking up, and there’s no hangover to speak of.