Game 77: The Leafs call another time-out on reality
What a wild night.
It's a good thing there are only five games remaining. I don't know what to write anymore. So maybe it's best if I just cut-and-paste a few sentences from recent weeks that, once again, seem applicable.
"This young team is hitting its stride." "The Leafs refuse to quit." "This could go down to the wire." "If the dream is dead, someone forgot to tell them." "Who knows what tomorrow may bring."
That's about it, really. Who the hell knows?
In the real world, the odds remain bleak. But these guys no longer inhabit the real world. They left the real world in January. They are now living on a remote island in a parallel universe where odds and numbers and standings are a mirage.
They are immune to reality. And as such, we are on the outside looking in, forced to make sense of this surreal push and endless loop of stirring, near-death victories.
Last night, just as 17 nights before, they beat Buffalo by a 4-3 score.
The surreal spectacle started at 1:34 of the first when Dion Phaneuf barreled down the left side and unleashed a howitzer from the blueline that made Ryan Miller look like Dennis Miller on sleeping pills.
It's possible the Buffalo goaltender – NHL player of the week and long-time haunter of Toronto dreams – simply forgot the month. I mean, if it was December, his frozen reaction to a Phaneuf wind-up would make sense.
In December, that shot does not catch the far corner, as it did last night. In December, that shot does not even catch the far boards. Instead, it explodes off the captain’s stick and forces spectators in the upper bowl to throw popcorn in the air as they run for cover.
But it's not December. It's March and everything about this team is different. The focus, the determination, the resilience, it's all different. The surreal late-season push is different. The atmosphere inside the ACC is different.
When James Reimer, a religious fellow who does not even swear, begins embellishing contact to draw a penalty, you just know it's all different now.
In December, Nazem Kadri looked like a toddler lost at the mall. In March, he has found his game. He was a force to be reckoned with for two periods, blazing around the ice, carrying the puck with poise and verve.
The second goal, banged in by Darryl Boyce at 18:46 of the first, came after Kadri literally willed his way to the net. The third goal, scored by Clarke MacArthur, came after Kadri made a beautiful cross-ice pass, his weapon of choice during this second tour of duty.
In December, the Leafs would’ve been demoralized by Buffalo’s first goal, which came with 12 seconds left in the opening period. They would’ve collapsed after surrendering two goals in 30 seconds, which allowed the Sabres to knot the game 3-3 in the second.
But it’s March and these guys are in their own deranged universe.
After Mikhail Grabovski corralled a dazzling pass from Phil Kessel and snapped the puck in to restore the lead, the stage was set for another wild finish.
Has anybody checked on Joe Bowen this morning? Should we send over a cup of tea with honey? Does he have laryngitis? My God, as the clock ticked down and Buffalo pressed – creating several harrowing moments – how Bowen did not spit out his tongue and vocal cords is a mystery.
We were reduced to the same guttural sounds – "Gaah!" "Eeya!” "Ooowee!" We were speaking gibberish. We were hoarse with delirium. We were barking repetitive exclamations at the TV – "Kill this penalty! Kill it!" "Stop that shot, Reims! Stop it!" "Clear the puck! Clear it!"
When the final buzzer sounded, I was shocked to find myself in the exact same position as Reimer, with a couple of minor differences. He was kneeling on the ice, looking up and smiling. I was kneeling on the floor, looking at my chest and begging my heart to restart.
So it's Boston tomorrow. Brace yourself for another wild night.
No matter what happens over the next five games, you really have to admire these guys for doing all those things I mentioned in the third paragraph.
Grim reality is rarely this much fun to watch.
MAIN PHOTO: RENE JOHNSTON/TORONTO STAR