The Tampa Bay Lightning broke out quickly in their first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Outscored 5-0, outshot 33-24, outskated, outworked, and by the looks of Bolt defenseman Jan Rutta’s forehead after it was sculpted by Morgan Rielly’s fist during a third-period line brawl, outpunched. It was, to steal Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe’s pre-series line, “borderline violent.”
But the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions are still in excellent position because, and this is something Leafs fans fully understand and therefore cannot object to, we’re talking about the Leafs.
The team’s history stopped in 1967 when a group of octogenerian dinosaurs won the city’s last Cup, and even ESPN was willing to dig into the Earth’s crust last night to reference Frank Mahovlich, civic idol Davey Keon, and national donut god Tim Horton during the game because, well, ESPN hasn’t done hockey in decades and everything is new to them, even if it’s 55 years ago.
The Leafs haven’t won a series of any kind since 2004, and when you toss in their blown 3-1 lead a year ago against the worst Montreal team to ever make the Final, you have a legacy of hilarious failure that, other than successive conference finals losses in the early ’90s, has gone uninterrupted.
In other words, any time the Leafs have success, the Pavlovian reaction among Leafs Province (which I guess is what they call the fan base up there) is to assume that something horrible is about to happen, because it always does.
The difference this time, such as it is, is that the Leafs won their series opener, which is an unusual tactic given their half-century of filling their skates with their own vomit. Not only that, they opened with “borderline violence” of which most people suspected they were incapable, with Kyle Clifford running Ross Colton into the boards and getting kicked out seven minutes into proceedings. Thus inspired, the Leafs got goals from Jake Muzzin, Auston Matthews, and David Kampf to blow the game to smithereens and convince Leafs fans everywhere that finally …
… that finally the end would be as painful as last year’s, because the Leafs donate sadness to children’s hospitals across the nation as part of the Full Leafs Experience. They snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with the same facility that they snatch defeat from the jaws of defeat, and they will not be regarded as cured just because Game 1 put them in remission.
They will, however, entertain in their own pathologically recriminative way unless Keefe was right and the “borderline violence” he promised is done to rather than by the Lightning. The Leafs are not to be trusted until they win a fourth game, and maybe not even after that. They could blow a 4-0 lead in a best-of-seven series, and it is a wonder they haven’t already done so. Maybe this is just karma added to the massive tab Harold Ballard ran as the owner in the 70s and 80s, but they are the team best positioned to take a 5-0 win in a series opener and make it seem like a knee in the nethers. They are, as though you needed reminding, still the Leafs.