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The Leafs Vanquished One Ghost, But They Have Many More To Go

Toronto Maple Leafs fans watch, cheer, react to game 6 of their first round NHL playoffs series against Tampa Bay Lightning on the big screen in Maple Leaf Square outside Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. April 29, 2023.
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

No sports thingamabob has had to navigate the twin gravitational poles of great expectations and no expectations quite like the Toronto Maple Leafs, because no team is the second favorite team of an entire nation (behind whatever your home team is) and yet has let that nation down more consistently or disastrously.

Thus, when John Tavares scored the winning goal in overtime to propel the Leafs past Tampa Bay and into the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in 19 years, the reaction was almost postpartum—exhilarated relief at the end of a long stretch of anticipatory pain. General manager Kyle Dubas nearly crushed the sterna of his suite mates, and head coach Sheldon Keefe looked like his head had transformed into a tomato. They could sleep with both eyes closed for a few days, secure in the probability that their jobs were safe for a while longer. At least, that is, until they find out whom their employees/saviors will play in the second round. If it's Boston, they will face the demonstrably best team in the league; if it's Florida, they will face the team that just wore down the Bruins for seven games.

And therein lies the conundrum for Leafs fans. Having had two decades to focus their angst on why their lads couldn't beat Boston or Washington or Columbus or Montreal or Tampa, or why they always lost in galling overtime games, they can now grapple with the rarefied air of rooting for a team that both met and overcame their ghosts—with the prize being more ghosts. Hell, for all we know the fan base might have been looking forward to them losing last night and forcing another trachea-constricting Game 7 at home. The addictive properties of self-punishment are well-documented, and not just by studying hat-wearing goldfish. Leafs fans probably dig the agony more than most other folks because they only know two things: the season that kicks you in the stomach, and the off-season that sets up the next kick.

When an American team has gone 56 years without a championship as the Leafs have, it takes on a certain underdog's charm; see the Rochester/Cincinnati/Kansas City/Omaha/Sacramento Kings, or the Detroit Lions or the Cleveland Indians/Guardians for examples of how unaffiliated fans take on the emotions of the directly afflicted fan base. The Chicago Cubs had never been so nationally beloved as they were in the tenth inning of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, and they'd done 108 years of doodley squat.

But the Leafs are different because they enter every season with outsized national hopes and, for more than two generations, have cross-checked those hopes into the boards head-first. The statistical focus has been on the last 19 years, and the eight consecutive series they had lost, and the 11 lost overtime games, and the five Game 7s they'd lost, and the nine straight closeout games they'd blown. The Leafs were disappointment in ways the Cubs and Lions and Kings were not. Had they coughed up Game 6 last night and then lost Game 7, it it would have been their 20th first-round exit since they last won the Cup, and only Calgary, another notorious playoff Miss Congeniality, has had more.

Nobody is invested in the Flames the way Canada is invested in the Leafs, though. Nobody is invested in the Cowboys, or Yankees, or Lakers, or Bayern Munich, or Manchester United, or any of the elite international soccer sides the way Canada is invested in the Leafs. So when Taveras circled his offensive zone, passed off the boards to himself, and banked a spin-around 25-footer off the skate of unfortunate Tampa defenseman Darren Raddysh, he had not just lifted a grand piano off of Canada's back, he set it up for new expectations and new burdens. If the Leafs win their second-round series and get to the conference final, for example, they'll be reminded that they haven't gotten past that level since 2002. Toronto's history is replete with these ravages, going back to 1967 when all their players were 40 years old and the league had less than 20 percent of the teams it has now.

In short, this was an enormous evening in Toronto Maple Leafs history, and that is such a seemingly small thing in the grander scale (eight teams do this every year) in every town except Toronto. The Leafs have been kissed and cursed by God seemingly forever, and whether they end up playing Boston or Florida in the second round is no indicator of God's osculatory leanings. These are the Leafs, and all we learned this weekend is that every two decades or so they can climb onto a step stool. How they fare against an actual ladder is still six weeks away.

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