Game 75: The Leafs punch out another crucial victory
Sometimes it's best to not ask questions or think about something for too long.
How are hotdogs made? Never mind. Seriously. Just take this bun, pick your condiments and enjoy. Why was the world recently obsessed with Rebecca Black? Doesn't matter. Tomorrow is Saturday and Sunday comes afterwards, that's all you really need to know.
Similarly, there is not much point in scrutinizing the win in Colorado. It was as sloppy as a hobo in a thunderstorm. It was as pretty as Picasso's Guernica. It was as relaxing as a full-body probe from invading space aliens.
Never mind. Doesn't matter. Winning is winning.
The Leafs are three points out this morning. I know. I can't stop laughing. Not because there is anything remotely funny about this insane, gut-churning ride. The stress is killing me. No, the laughter stems more from a mix of pride and disbelief: These magnificent bastards refuse to abandon the improbable dream.
Let the maladjusted shut-ins continue to drone on about probability and statistical projections. Let them tut-tut and insist it's never going to happen.
The Leafs are not listening. They think it can happen and, really, that's the most important variable. They own the third-best record in the NHL since the All-Star break. They are dominating on the road. They are finding new ways to win.
In fact, the 4-3 nail-biter in Denver was important for two reasons: 1. It kept the Leafs in the race and has now set-up The Most Important Weekend Of The Season™. 2. It was one of the few times this season they found a way not to lose against a weaker opponent when fate looked to be conspiring with disappointment yet again.
Columbus, St. Louis, Atlanta, New Jersey, NY Islanders, Florida, Colorado, Ottawa and Edmonton – these are the teams below Toronto in the league standings this morning. Now consider this: The Leafs have lost 12 games to those teams, including seven in regulation, since October 18.
So when Colorado scored a shorthanded goal at 5:55 of the first – actually, Dion Phaneuf scored it for them, making the time somehow feel more like 6:66 – Leaf fans immediately thought, "Uh oh. Not this again."
But then it happened.
The Leafs assumed visitor control of the period. Nikolai Kulemin scored twice, morphing into Mr. Clutch by first jumping on a Mikhail Grabovski rebound and then, with six seconds remaining, banging one past Brian Elliott from a godawful angle.
In the second, repeated thoughts of, "Uh oh. Not this again."
After going up 3-1 on a gorgeous deflection by Tyler Bozak, the Leafs suddenly found themselves on the receiving end of sustained pressure as the Avs decided to do something they haven't done much this season: Impress the tens of fans inside the Pepsi Center.
Since the game started late, and I was already sleep-deprived and running on Red Bull, my notes from this second period now appear to be written by Pierre McGuire:
"I tell you what, this pressure is intense – intense!" "The Leafs need to weather this storm – this is a Colorado avalanche right here." "Oh, wow, look at the Avs cycle down low and muscle their way in the corners. WOW. That's beautiful stuff right there. I tell you what, these guys are snarling like junkyard dogs right now and Toronto better check for bite marks. I tell you what."
But then it happened. Key players assumed key roles.
James Reimer, who could now move to the woods, start his own cult and have 80 per cent of the city follow him, was heroic. He made save after save, most from in close, several of the spectacular variety.
Luke Schenn, solely responsible for the Bozak goal, was a tower of power in both ends. Phaneuf was surly and punishing. Mike Komisarek, back from injury, played possibly his best game of the season. The top two lines buried their chances, including Phil Kessel, who scored the eventual game winner on the power play in the third.
Even when fate seemed determined to hand the Leafs another loss to a weaker opponent – whether it was Nazem Kadri somehow missing an open net in the second or Mike Brown using his leg instead of his stick to score a goal that would not count in the third – the Leafs pushed back and did just enough at just the right time.
After Matt Duchene made it 4-3 at 11:54 of the third, the heart-stopping finish was on.
The Avs pressed. They skated hard. They controlled the play, outshooting Toronto 12-8 over the period, including a deranged blitz of one shot per every 20 seconds in a final minute that really should have been sponsored by Rolaids.
Never mind. Doesn't matter. The good guys prevailed.
So here we are.
Buffalo plays twice this weekend at home, tonight against Florida and tomorrow against Jersey. Carolina faces Tampa this evening. And the Leafs are headed to Motown, for a Hockey Night in Canada battle with the Wings tomorrow.
So by this time on Sunday morning, well, let's not think about it just yet. These guys believe. All we can really do is watch and enjoy.
MAIN PHOTO: RICK WILKING/REUTERS