Game 74: When a perfect game means nothing in the race
Damn you, Montreal! Damn you, Ottawa! Damn you, Florida!
You ruined a perfectly good 3-0 victory tonight. Your inability to win took the sheen off James Reimer's third shutout. It sullied the Leafs' symmetrical and lethally efficient output of one goal per period on a measly 17 shots.
I know, I know. It is folly to assign blame to Montreal, Ottawa, Florida or anybody else. It's not their fault. Given the number of points Toronto squandered in the first half, it's a small miracle they are even in this improbable race.
Still, it's frustrating to watch this team capitalize on chances, get stellar goaltending, earn another road win and, yet, have it mean jacksquat in the grand scheme of things. "Keeping pace" may be technically correct but there is one less game to play now, which is significant with so few remaining.
You can't keep pace indefinitely.
But that's where we are.
All the Leafs can do now is win their games and hope to hell others lose. That is the nature of any race when you are behind. Tonight, they ran as fast as they could – and give them full credit for that – but nobody ahead had the decency to stumble and trip.
My wife and mother-in-law both overuse the phrase, "Simple as that."
There's an election coming. Simple as that. We'll need to think about fertilizing the lawn soon. Simple as that. The cats need their claws trimmed. Simple as that. (Actually, there is nothing simple about that as the scratch on my cheek now reveals.)
Where the race is concerned, the Leafs forfeited control of their destiny in December. Now with eight games to go, their fate is shared among a rotating cast of teams.
So with Buffalo, Carolina and the Rangers also winning tonight – see the aforementioned "damns" – this impressive Leaf victory was for statistical naught. The relative standings did not change. The magnificent bastards remain in 10th spot, five points out of eighth spot, just like when the night started.
Simple as that.
The highlights, really, were three breakaway saves Reimer made in the first two periods. Everything else had a workman-like quality that was accentuated by the drab atmosphere inside the misleadingly named Xcel Energy Center.
My God, we complain about the ACC. But who programs the music in Minnesota? Is it a tone-deaf birthday clown? Ernie and Bert? That Muzak version of Zeppelin's "Kashmir" they played in the first was excruciating.
No wonder the Wild are struggling.
What's with the public address announcer? Did they find him at a passport office, where he perfected his delivery by calling out next-in-line numbers in a groggy monotone? And what's with the hometown broadcasters? I gather they had trouble pronouncing certain Leaf names this evening.
It's weird. I mean, considering they have to repeatedly say "Clayton Stoner" and "Cal Clutterbuck" – try saying "Clutterbuck" five times quickly and see what it turns into – you'd think "Phaneuf" would be a welcome change.
But I digress.
Never mind the race for a minute.
The good news is this: The Leafs are coming together, slowly but surely. The sum of the parts is taking shape. The future is bright. And after more parts are added this summer, it will be even brighter.
And so in the long-term, let's call it the journey to distinguish it from the short-term race, it feels like they've finally passed a critical junction. Instead of young and drifting aimlessly they are young and moving forward.
Are there still rough patches ahead? Undoubtedly. Will there be moments in which we fling inanimate objects at our television sets or demand so-and-so's head on a platter? Probably.
But tonight, once again, we watched a team that's learning to win in new ways while learning not to lose in old ways. They should be proud of their second-half accomplishments. If they can start next season the way they are finishing this one, we won't be scoreboard watching or eating lemon squares or blaming others come March.
Simple as that.
MAIN PHOTO: ANDY KING/REUTERS