Game 4: Return of the Kessel
Well, that was a weird one.
But when the seesaw ride ended in overtime at 9:45 p.m., the Leafs were exactly where they were 2 hours and 28 minutes earlier: Undefeated.
With a 4-3 win over the Rangers, the Leafs are now 4-0. Four-and-oh. The letters T-O-R-O-N-T-O follow No. 1 on the NHL's official standings. The haters, suddenly less willing to mutter lame jokes about parades, have entered the witness protection program.
This team is at the threshold of something special. This team is as real as the hard liquor Leaf fans won't need to guzzle this winter during long stretches of despair.
On Friday night, in Madison Square Garden for the 85th home opener, the Rangers started on a tsunami of emotion and made the first splash when Michal Rozsival scored at 7:58.
But the tsunami was a mirage.
Despite the 1-0 lead after 20 minutes, a glance at the shot clock showed the Leafs with a 16-7 advantage. Meanwhile, a glance at John Tortorella's pained smirk showed a man who knew he had a problem on his hands.
In the second, this problem exploded into full-blown disaster as the Leafs scored three unanswered goals and turned a professional hockey game into a merciless game of keep-away.
At 2:04, seconds after a Rangers penalty expired, Clarke MacArthur banged in the puck after a frantic scramble in the goalmouth. Nikolai Kulemin and Luke Schenn picked up assists on MacArthur's fifth of the season.
Less than three minutes later, Phil Kessel stormed down the left side, hit the brakes and doubled back through the high slot. He feathered a dainty pass to Mike Komisarek, who fired the vulcanized rubber through foggy gridlock.
About three minutes after that, during a four-on-four, Tyler Bozak gobbled up the puck outside his blue line and streaked down the left side, two-on-one. He held the puck for three steamboats and made a nifty move as a hapless Ranger skidded past. Then he fed the puck to Kessel, who redirected it into the gaping twine.
About eight minutes into the frame, the shots were 20-9 and the score was 3-1. The Leafs, guests at the party, were destroying the place.
To say they dominated the second is like saying Lindsay Lohan is troubled. It is an understatement. The Leafs looked like a different species altogether. They were faster, stronger, smarter. They carried the puck as if it was Krazy Glued to their stick blades.
Were those actual New York Rangers on the ice? Or were they robots powered by papaya juice and programmed to skate around in semi-circles without ever getting in the way of the team in white?
Frankly, it was impossible to tell.
So maybe the hockey gods sensed a bit of cockiness creeping into Leafs Nation. Maybe they wanted the Rangers home opener to be a closer affair. What happened exactly I can't be sure but things definitely got weird in the third.
At 2:10, Brian Boyle floated a long shot toward the Leaf net. At this precise moment, instead of goaltending, J.S. Giguere decided to do a non-singing impression of Stevie Wonder.
Hey, guys, what just sailed past me? Was that the puck? Did someone shoot a puck into my net? I’m just going to stand here and not move a muscle until someone tells me what just happened.
Then, incredibly, Boyle did it again four minutes later.
In living rooms and basements and bars across Toronto, fans likely thought: "Oh oh. Was it all a dream? Is this team going to go on a losing streak after blowing a two-goal lead in the third? And why is Sean Avery always carrying on like such an insufferable douchebag?"
But then a funny thing happened: The Leafs shrugged off the comeback.
The seesaw ride came to an abrupt end in overtime when Kessel, on the power play and looking for redemption after an off-night in Pittsburgh, scored his second of the game, wristing a shot past a faultless Henrik Lundqvist.
And just like that, the Leafs were nothing but wins after four games, the first time in 17 years.
Mike Komisarek, who scored his first goal as a Leaf, sent an email from New York about an hour after the game ended. It was laced with such sweet enthusiasm, I found myself smiling for several minutes after reading it:
Great team win! Feels good to get that first goal out of the way finally, but the start our team is off to feels way better. We haven't accomplished anything yet and still have a TON of work to do but boy we have a great group of guys and we are having fun!! All we are thinking about is playoffs!
As are we, sir. As are we.
PHOTO: MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS