Game 41: The Leafs are reborn in the City of Angels
I probably shouldn't be writing at this ungodly hour. Not when I'm wired on Red Bull and adrenaline and bliss.
But screw it.
If Colby Armstrong can remove his visor after one period and hustle with a scratched cornea and face that looked like it was vandalized by toddlers brandishing Crayola markers, I can surely type a few words. If every single Leaf can avoid a negative plus-minus, the least I can do is be positive at 2:14 a.m.
You know how it seemed like we tumbled through a gap in the space-time continuum sometime after Game 5? You know how it felt like we were stuck in an abusive relationship, trying our best to remain faithful to a team that was cheating on us with a temptress named Mediocrity?
Well, let the healing begin. Let us trust these magnificent Leaf bastards once more. Maybe it won't last. Maybe we'll kick them out again. But for now, let us place our faith in a 2011 resurgence that is as inexplicable as it is increasingly spectacular.
Toward the end of tonight's rousing 3-2 victory over the Kings, this was the scene:
Less than two minutes remained. Dion Phaneuf was in the box for slashing. LA pulled goalie Jonathan Quick for an extra attacker. It was 6-on-4 as the crowd inside the Staples Center wobbled to its feet, preemptively clapping for the equalizer.
But our suddenly reliable Leafs refused to comply. They refused to disappoint us.
They swooped and dove after the puck like marine birds bobbing for fish. They jumped in front of shots with insane bravery. They won faceoffs and hammered opposition skaters along the boards. They set-up in box formation and stood their ground, fighting for every positional inch of ice as every second of time ticked down.
And when the buzzer sounded, when their fourth consecutive road win was relegated to history, they swarmed the mighty James Reimer who stopped 30 of 32 shots, including all 17 in the third.
Before Reimer skated off the ice, his ruddy cheeks drenched with rivulets of sweat that cascaded down his brow, Ron Wilson grinned – he smiled! – and pumped hands with his assistant coaches, including Tim Hunter who was celebrating his 1,000th game.
And who could begrudge any of this celebration? Yes, there's a lot we can still be mad about this season. But the Leafs begged our forgiveness with another impressive road game. Against a very good, very fast team that drives the net and takes no prisoners in the corners, the Leafs put on a clinic in grit, heart, poise and confidence.
If the game against Atlanta was a statistical aberration, this one felt like the New Normal. If Game 5 to, say, Game 36, felt like we were stumbling around inside a pitch-black labyrinthine maze – one step forward, three steps back – Game 41 felt like we turned a corner and ambled up a ladder toward the light.
It wasn't just the goals: the nifty create-a-screen snap shot by Darryl Boyce; the flawless one-timer by Phil Kessel; the never-say-die rebound hunger of Nikolai Kulemin. It wasn't just the puck-moving defence or the stellar goaltending.
No, the most impressive aspect of tonight's game was something that's not quantified in a box score: Even when they allowed the first goal, even when LA was pressing, even when the referees were paying homage to Kerry Fraser with a startling number of missed calls, the Leafs always looked like winning was the only logical outcome.
They believed in themselves. They are making it impossible for us to not do the same.
Apologies if this recap is freighted with maudlin overtones. I'm just really happy and hopeful. The good Leafs, they've come back to us.
PHOTO: LUCY NICHOLSON/REUTERS