Make a break for it, Leafs Nation. Don't ask questions.
Save yourselves! Escape the madness while you still can! Run!
Over the river and through the woods – doesn't matter if it's grandmother’s house! Just knock on the door, make sure the occupant does not own a TV or radio and then cower under the floorboards for the next month.
When you come out, blinking in the sunshine and brushing off cobwebs, the Leafs will either be getting ready for the, you know, or they will, yeah, you also know.
Either way, you will be spared the gut-wrenching, hair-pulling, leg-twitching, retina-burning and heart-squishing madness that now seems all but inevitable if tonight's 4-3 overtime loss is a reliable guide.
The good news is the Leafs somehow gained a point in the standings. I say "somehow" because the magnificent poor bastards worked diligently to not get the point. Seriously, it was like the point was radioactive.
Stay away from the point. That point has three heads.
Once again, it was The Most Important Game Of The Season™. But instead of rising to the occasion, instead of soothing jangled nerves after Saturday's unsettling loss, the Leafs took a blowtorch to our anxiety.
They were outshot 40-27 by the 26-32-10 Islanders. They fell behind three times. Toronto's top scorers – so energetic and effective in recent weeks – looked like groggy Kermode bears about to drop after getting nailed with tranquilizer darts during a National Geographic special.
The defensive coverage, holy hell, it was like watching a group of blind people square dance for the first time inside a ballroom tricked-out with funhouse mirrors and quicksand.
Grab him! No, behind you! That’s not his body! Over there! Look out! Do-si-do!
Before the game was two minutes old, there was a problem with the glass, causing a delay. If I had a time machine, I would now go back to that moment and read our beloved Leafs the riot act: "Hey! You’re about to get outhustled over the next 2.5 hours! You're about to let another critical point slip through your dull skates! Focus!"
What an aggravating night full of aggravating questions.
How on earth was that a penalty shot? Are the Leafs even trying on the power play? Or are they now using those two-minute intervals to hypnotize each other so they have a half-decent party trick for barbeques this spring?
What is with the lighting inside Nassau Coliseum? It's so dim and drab you can't see the 392 people in attendance. Why am I sitting here at 2 a.m. and humming that stupid "Live is Life" song they play when the Islanders score?
Live is Life – what does that even mean?
What is going on with the hair belonging to one Jack Capuano? Does New York's coach drive to Supercuts, amble toward the entrance and then frantically rub the top of his skull on the brickwork outside until clumps are shorn off and the rest is standing on end? Is he electrocuted just before the puck drops?
You know, I think the most aggravating part of this game – down, up, down, up, down, up and then down for good – was that it felt like a microcosm of this dizzying season.
This raises another question: How much more can we take?
I mean, give the Leafs partial credit for battling back three times. But where was the intensity from the get-go? Why were they not ready to start this game? Why were they not ready to finish this game after getting several lucky breaks and do-overs?
The Islanders hit the post FIVE TIMES! My God, between the 80s Austrian pop, the time travel fantasies, the apocalyptic doom and the clanging that sounded like gunfire – bang! bang! bang! bang! bang! – I half-expected Arnold Schwarzenegger to kick down my living room door and ask if I was hiding Sarah Connor under my Kordic jersey.
Five goal posts? Four power plays? A regulation loss for both Buffalo and Jersey? The hockey gods were doing everything they possibly could to help the Leafs tonight and yet...
...I'm sorry for ranting. I am.
I know the lovable kooks picked up a point and that is good. But they have also donated a number of single points in overtime and shootouts recently – five since the start of last month – and that is not good when you scrutinize the standings and crunch the numbers.
So while my brain wants to be positive, my heart keeps swearing like Lindsay Lohan after a bender in Malibu. The good news is we live for another day. The bad news is if living conditions do not improve significantly our days are numbered.
Time for another reset, I guess. Time to forget about this one and get ready for Thursday, for another tangle with the struggling Flyers, Kris Versteeg and his ornamental mouth guard.
Give me a few hours. Or make a break for it while you can. I won't say a word.
Here's the thing: It's hard not to be excited about the direction in which this young team is headed. But on nights like this, the urge to run away and wait it out inside a safe-house is as powerful and inexplicable as a catchy retro song that makes absolutely no sense.
MAIN PHOTO: KATHY KMONICEK/ASSOCIATED PRESS
I think the topsy-turvy, up-and-down ride of 2010-2011 is finally taking a toll. Do I sense an emotional fatigue creeping into Leafs Nation?
Me, I'm hitting the reset button today. I am blocking out the negativity and not opening emails in which the subject line reads: "I told you this would happen!"
Positive thoughts... must stay positive... must not despair.
"Why is there no recap today?" he asked.
"I've been up all night with a sick kid," I said, which is the truth.
"You sure there's just nothing left to say?"
I could hear his wife giggling in the background.
Well, laugh it up! I'm not giving up!
The Leafs remain four points out of the word we dare not speak. It was the team's first regulation loss since February 12. Despite the setback to the powerhouse Hawks, not much has changed...
... And yet, for some inexplicable reason, it feels like everything changed after that first period. Why is doom and gloom swirling around our fragile psyches once again? One loss and all is lost?
As Ron Wilson noted: "It would be awful idiotic to say that we were going to win every game the rest of the way."
Yes, that would be idiotic. But perhaps idiocy is inevitable when a team surges after losing so many games the middle of the way.
The team has 67 points. If the goal is to reach 90 points – a reasonable threshold for post-season qualification – they need to earn 23 points over the remaining 16 games.
So all they need to do is, let's see, win 11 games in regulation time and get another point in overtime or a shootout. All they need to do is, hang on, lose no more than, um, four more games.
This is not a race so much as a tightrope act, an intense foot-over-foot journey across a thin wire that's strapped across two poles at high altitude. There is no room for mistakes, for missteps, no matter how good the opponent, no matter how bad the timing.
We are specks in the blue sky. One slip and we plunge into the abyss.
Positive thoughts... must stay positive... must not despair.
Between the Leafs game, Charlie Sheen's horrendous online show (which I made the mistake of watching in a desperate attempt to forget hockey) and my daughter's all-night-all-morning vomitathon, it's been rather grim inside ALF B headquarters over the past 18 hours.
I hope you're having a much better Sunday. I hope you're trying to stay positive. If not, if you've decided to get off this crazy ride, I thank you for the company thus far. I shall remember you fondly.
Godspeed, Leafs Nation.
I'm avoiding the out-of-town scoreboard today. Instead, I'm just going to rest my head, hit the emotional reset, try to stay positive and perhaps watch a loop of this video:
MAIN PHOTO: DARREN CALABRESE/CANADIAN PRESS
Dear Mr. Menon:
Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Elizabeth Brinton, nee Smythe. I am the youngest daughter of Stafford and granddaughter of Conn. Pictures of both men surround me in my blue and white study where I am currently working on a memoir. While I grew up in Maple Leaf Gardens and thought of it as home, my feelings for the grand old lady and for the era of the sixties are similar to those of fans everywhere.
The Leafs loomed as heroes to me, but as a young girl, I felt so drawn to them as men of great character. We were indeed, as many have written, a brotherhood. To say that we were a competitive family would be the understatement of the century, but in truth, both my paterfamilias as he referred to himself, or my grand sire as he called himself, wanted those in their midst to achieve great things for their own sakes, as well as for everyone else around them.
Once you get a taste of success, you crave it again and again, and the belief in how it will change your life is infectious. I, too, am quite taken by the Leafs of today. My hope is constant. I live far away and listen to the games on the radio but my blood still runs true blue.
Fans who are kind enough to write me, ask questions such as this: "Do I see another Tim Horton?" Of course, I can only reply in the words of Shakespeare: "We shall not look upon his like again."
To answer the question of whether or not we have what it takes, I would say "yes." We have Luke Schenn. We have Clarke MacArthur. We have Dion Phaneuf. I took an instinctive liking to Joffrey Lupul.
Conn Smythe said, "A collection of stars will never bring victory." The greatest moments in the history of the game occur when something else begins to happen, when many parts become one body, when players throw themselves, flat out, as Bill Barilko did, prostrate their bodies, exist on the horizontal plane, unconscious of their individuality and given over entirely to the game.
How do they get there? That is the great question.
Conn told his players that they would stretch themselves until they were as thin as a streak. When Brian Burke said he would build the Leafs from the goal out, I thought it was something my father would have said. While he sat in silence through the games, Dad would sometimes stand and roar, "It's yours!"
Inevitably, we would see a breakaway go into a new gear with a goal to follow.
Personally, my tastes have always run to my great protectors first. Show me a man who will dance on one leg with a frozen, broken ankle dangling, dance the twist with a 10-year-old girl because she asked him to, dance into the night as Bobby Baun did with me all those years ago; show me that man and I will say with him protecting us, no one will take the Cup away in their car tonight. It's coming home with us. Any threat will be met, dealt with and stopped. Defeat does not rest Lightly on their Shoulders.
Secondly, I have always had a thing for the fast ones, the ones with fire, and juice. I favor a slightly wild streak. Dickie Duff and Davey Keon, quite simply, could take my breath away. Regardless of position, it is the quality that made Conn leave the trenches and run into the fight. He did not wait for it to come to him. Darcy Tucker, Doug Gilmour, and of course, his Royal Highness, Prince Edward Shack, all had one quality in common: zeal.
Phil Kessel, Mikhail Grabovski and Colby Armstrong have this talent. I believe it is God Given.
Thirdly, my heart is taken with people who are stalwart and true, men like Alan Stanley and George Armstrong who simply will not falter. The rocks of my young world whom I could only thank over and over and over.
Clarke MacArthur strikes me as such a man.
My faith in Brian Burke is absolute. I pray for him every night. If I could say one thing to him it would be this: "Happy St. Patrick's Day, Mr Burke." To Ron Wilson, my hopes and dreams are with you too. I have faith. I believe. Will we make the playoffs this year? We have to. Every step you take brings you closer. Each time we go around we come away stronger.
We have a new generation in our family now. Little boys who sit watching the games on TV with their Dads who have spent their entire lives yearning for victory. May my father's great grandsons, schooled in the stories of when the Cup was in the living room, see Lord Stanley's trophy come back to us at last, to the place where it lives.
What I tell the little ones and what I told my children is that it was all created from the imagination of one man and to never forget that it was once a dream.
Best of luck to you,
Elizabeth S. Brinton
In the top above, she writes: "You see my father crouched in front. Behind him stands my sister, the late Victoria Rose Smythe. My brother, the late Thomas Stafford Smythe has me in hand and beside him in the little navy coat and white hat is my sister Mary Smythe. The rest of the crowd would consist of the families of the Marlies, celebrating as was so often the case in my young life, a championship victory."
The portrait on the left was painted by artist Kelly Sullivan. This email was reprinted with Elizabeth S. Brinton's permission.
I think my body is in shock. Or my brain is short-circuiting, failing to make sense of what my eyes witnessed tonight.
Did the Leafs just saunter into the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia and exit with two points? Did they just beat the top Eastern team in their own building after beating Pittsburgh yesterday?
I'm not the only one in shock. Look at the Flyer fans in the picture above.
The mustachioed fellow in the captain jersey looks like someone drove off with his truck at a gas station while he was inside paying. The guy in the black sweater and blue collar looks like his girlfriend just texted to say she's sleeping with his cousin. And look at the guy behind him, in that weird-patterned cream shirt. He looks like someone just force-fed him an entire rutabaga and then pummeled him with a bag of grapefruits.
Now look at the magnificent bastards in the foreground.
There are 11 seconds left in the second period. Dion Phaneuf has just scored to tie the game at two. He has just screamed so loud, it damaged TV microphones in the upper bowl. And now he is hugging Mikhail Grabovski with an enthusiasm usually reserved for high school sweethearts reunited after 50 years of wrongful imprisonment.
Look at them! They are levitating! They are floating on air!
You know, there have been many highs this season. These guys in blue and white have made us proud on many occasions. But tonight, my God, they upped the ante.
Since my body is in shock and my mind is fried, let's do this recap with pictures:
This image was snapped seconds after Darryl Boyce scored the game winning goal with less than five minutes left in the third.
Note what Colby Armstrong is doing here. Unlike Boyce, Armstrong was never on his knees during this play. Yet he is about to join Boyce in hallelujah formation because that's what great teammates do when the universe suddenly aligns and the once improbable becomes downright palpable.
This was the view of Boyce's goal from... heaven.
<--- "How did that go in?"
<--- "I thought you had him!"
<--- "I don't know how he did that!"
<--- "Colby! Come pray with me!"
3. CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
Scott Hartnell? Yeah, he has a 126 penalty minutes. Keith Aulie? He's never fought before in the NHL.
And yet in this image, taken at 1:41 of the second, Hartnell starts a scrap, lands a punch and then eats a half-dozen bombs served up from Aulie's right fist.
When the linesmen jump in, Hartnell is curled up on the ice like an old sleeping bag and the Leafs are seriously fired up.
Hey! Look, it's Kris Versteeg!
In this image, the fellow with the casual attitude and ornamental mouth guard, taps in his second goal of the game.
Long story short: The Leafs are still undefeated when Versteeg scores.
(If you see his car in Philly, please find a dusty spot and scrawl: "HA HA!")
What can we say about James Reimer that we don't already say 137 times a day?
He stopped 28 of 30 shots. He made clutch saves in every period, including in the final minute to preserve Toronto's 3-2 win.
He has not stopped smiling since he arrived in town. And he seems to emit an invisible chemical that calms his team while also giving them strength and confidence, no matter what the situation.
Put it this way: In seven of his 12 wins, including this one tonight, the other team has scored first and it hasn't made one bit of difference.
So the momentum continues. The lemon squares are getting moldy. And this team is riding a tsunami that shows no signs of slowing down.
I leave you with one more picture:
MAIN PHOTO: MATT SLOCUM/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Does home insurance cover the cost of a busted coffee table? What about cabinetry chipped by projectiles?
No and no? Well, who cares.
Yes, my coffee table may need to be euthanized. And, yes, I should not have chucked a hardcover book – The Coming Plague – across the room when Mikhail Grabovski scored in overtime, giving the magnificent Leaf bastards a 3-2 win and two more points in the race toward the, you know.
But I couldn't help it.
These spontaneous acts of property damage were caused by a happiness so pure, I almost wept when that commercial for Rickard's aired in the post-game and the bartender said: "Take the best day of your life and put it in your mouth."
Maybe it was the first two periods. Maybe it was watching the superstar-depleted Penguins strut around in their goofy pre-playoff beards, outhustling the Leafs and controlling the play through forty minutes.
Maybe it was the sinking feeling that comes from acute exposure to free-floating doom, from sitting in the radioactive glow of a 2-1 deficit and Pierre McGuire's unhinged voice while thinking: Okay, Carolina won last night. This is the game in hand. Lose, and it's 6 points out with 18 games to go. Lose, and it's no regulation wins in the last three games. Lose, and an already challenging situation becomes two shades bleaker.
All I know is this win felt like a blood infusion. It felt preordained, almost fated, not that I'm applying that F-bomb to anything beyond tonight. It felt serendipitous but not fluky, incredible but not unbelievably so.
At one critical junction, it looked like the enterprise would be torpedoed by a terrible miscalculation in velocity and incline.
There’s no way those dominoes zig-zag up that slope, I thought.
Then after a moment of suspended animation, punctuated by gasps, those damn dominoes slowed but, somehow, never stopped clacking forth toward the finish line.
When I thrust my tape recorder in front of a euphoric face and asked for an explanation, a guy in a sweatshirt answered: "Momentum!"
Kudos to you, Phil Kessel. No, really. Kudos.
I hope Alex Ovechkin still has those digital photos he snapped of you during the All-Star Game Fantasy Draft. Maybe he can print one off tomorrow and scribble a caption on the back: "WTF? This Kessel guy now has more goals than me."
Yes, The Phil Kessel Awesome Streak of 2011 blazed new ground tonight with a brilliant tip-in at 5:07 of the third, which knotted the game. Then it continued in overtime when Kessel redirected a Carl Gunnarsson pass to Grabovski on a play that was financed by an end-to-end Dion Phaneuf rush, one of the Captain's most spectacular moments this season.
I don't know about the best day of our lives. But the last 20 minutes and 42 seconds of this game tasted pretty damn good, Mr. Bartender.
Not that there's time to really savour the win or the two points.
No, The Most Important Game Of The Season™ is now less than 24 hours away. The Leafs will face a significant road test against the Flyers, a significant challenge against the best team in the East.
James Reimer, solid after surrendering an iffy goal in the first, will get the nod. Hopefully, The Big Guns in tonight's win – the 20-plus goal scoring posse of Grabovski, Kessel and Nikolai Kulemin – remember to pack their sharpshooting scopes.
Everybody get ready for war. The plague is not coming, not yet, anyway.
Tomorrow, we see if the dominoes continue to fall through the obtacles. Tomorrow, we go where this momentum takes us.
GAME PHOTOS: STEVE RUSSELL/TORONTO STAR
FOR MORE IMAGES, VISIT THE STAR PHOTO BLOG
BY ROBERT HUTT
So, here I am sitting by the fire, sipping a glass of merlot, looking at a moth-eaten, torn and well-worn blue and white sweater. The neckline is frayed, the sleeves shrunk, tatters everywhere. The crest on the front, crisscrossed with tape marks from old sticks.
My father took me to Maple Leaf Gardens in 1942. A kid of seven, I will never forget that experience. This was the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team. It didn't say so everywhere; it was just impregnated in the walls, the seats and certainly on the ice.
I wonder if this sweater, the one I now imagine, was around at that time.
That was when this crest was born – a maple leaf – a sign of a sports franchise that represented much of this country. A powerful logo, saluted near and far.
In those days, you worked hard to wear the Maple Leaf, a crest Conn based on an insignia he wore in World War I.
Or should this sweater belong to someone on the Kid Line – Busher Jackson, Joe Primeau or Charlie Conacher? Or maybe Ace Bailey, almost killed in 1933 when Eddie Shore checked him from behind into the boards, ending his illustrious career.
Damn this sweater, I can feel the excitement, the incredible history woven into the fabric.
I can still hear the chants of "Come on, TEEEEDER!" ring down from the greens in 1947 as Kennedy races down the ice. I can see Bill Barilko's Cup-winning goal, feel the excitement, before he disappears in a plane crash on a fishing trip the following summer.
Fast-forward to 1960. Smythe sells most of his shares to son Stafford, John Bassett and Harold Ballard.
Toronto goes on to win three straight Cups from 1962 to 1964. And the names that could be on the back of this sweater – all Hall of Famers – include Frank Mahovlich, Red Kelly, Johnny Bower, Dave Keon, Andy Bathgate and Tim Horton.
In 1967, Toronto and Montreal meet in the final again. Montreal is a huge favourite. But Bob Pulford scores in double-overtime in Game 3. Jim Pappin nets the winner in Game 6. Keon is named most valuable player. And Bobby Baun finishes the series on a broken ankle.
The Toronto Maple Leafs win the Cup!
The last time those words are spoken.
All the players I mentioned had one thing in common: They wore the Maple Leaf crest with pride. The sweater on their backs was a symbol of the commitment in their hearts.
But in 1970, the decline begins.
Harold Ballard takes control of the team. There are running feuds with several key players, including Keon, Lanny McDonald and Darryl Sittler. The team has some success but they are, at best, inconsistent season over season.
More recent history has this franchise on a rollercoaster ride: Up, down, up, down... with very little significant success, at least not when measured by... the Cup.
There are so many names. There is so much history.
But at this point I am obliged to stop.
I want to pick up this sweater I can see but not touch. I want to hold it and feel the energy, the crowds I remember, the dreams of every player, of every fan, in every part of this staggering enclave known as Leafs Nation.
I guess I am concerned about this sweater.
As I watch the young colts take to the ice this season, I often wonder: Are they the renewal of this historic franchise? Will they fulfill the timeless optimism of every fan, young and old? Do they give everything to the game when they don this jersey? Are they dedicated? Do they know what the sweater... represents?
I don't want them to play well just for themselves. I also want them to play well for me, for you, for all of us. They wear The Sweater for all of us. It is a symbol of our shared past. And the crest will be there if and when the franchise finds a path toward the future glory of yesteryear.
What can we expect from the young colts over the next 19 games and beyond?
Perhaps the pride I feel in this sweater will be transferred to those I shall watch on the ice tomorrow night, just as I did in 1942, when I held my father's hand and entered Maple Leaf Gardens.
I know when the young colts feel this pride, once again, I will too.
Robert Hutt (aka Robert), a lifelong Leafs fan, lives up in the hills along south shore Nova Scotia with his wife and their dog. A former cameraman and executive producer with CBC Television, Robert has worked on films with Bobby Orr and Dave Keon.
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MAIN PHOTO: FRANK LENNON
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