It's officially playoff time for the NHL. The lone Original Six match-up this year is Maple Leafs vs. Bruins, and thus far it's been an all black-and-yellow affair. The Bruins won the first two games handedly, 5-1 and then 7-3. The series now shifts from Boston to Toronto and the Leafs will hope for some home-ice magic.
You never know how things are going to go when these two teams meet. This is the 14th playoff match-up all-time and momentum has always heaved from one side to the other. The last meeting, in the second round in 2013, was especially tempestuous.
The Leafs are leading 4-1 in the third period of game seven – run out the clock and they will be bound for the Eastern Conference Finals. But run out the clock they will not; the Bruins mount a wild comeback, scoring three goals to force overtime and another 6:05 in to seal it. The Leafs' season, just like that, is over.
Unfortunately for their fans, the Leafs have become synonymous with failure. The club does have 13 Stanley Cups to its name, but has not won one – or even made a Finals appearance – since the 1966-67 season. Their series loss in 2013 is representative of the last 50 years, of high hopes quickly dashed.
The Leafs are still fixing to exorcise their playoff demons. Their chances remain good this time around – even down two games in the series – with this core group of young talent, especially with the experience of going toe-to-toe with Washington last season under their collective belt. Who knows, maybe this year will finally be the year. Winning tonight will be a good place to start.
To get a better sense of how long Toronto has been waiting and what a Finals appearance would mean to the city, lets take a look in at two very different generations of Leafs fans...
"What was it like back then? When we were actually good... What was it like to see the cup raised? I can't even picture it."
Jon asked these questions of his grandfather. 1967 felt like an eternity away and he wanted to get a better sense of what winning felt like, to know if the stories of the Maple Leafs raising the Stanley Cup were actually real and not just some fairytale. They sure felt make-believe.
"We weren't known for losing then," Jon's grandfather said. "We had won close to ten Cups over a 20-year period. But it was still a party when we won. There were parades, thousands of people downtown, streamers and whatnot. It was a blast. And we walked a little taller, I guess. Yeah."
"It's just so hard to imagine. We're so removed from it – it feels like a entirely different team now."
"Well, it is in a way. The experience is different at least. For me, it was the whole package... The Garden was such an intimidating building. When you walked down Carlton and came up to it, you felt like an ant. As a young man, this towering structure above you, home to so many greats... it was intimidating. I think visiting clubs felt that too."
"Right, right. What was it like inside then?"
"It was simple! Hah. No jumbotron, no HD highlights and loud music. No ads on the boards. There wasn't much light in the stands when the game was on either, just this glowing white oval in the middle of it all... drew you in. A simpler time."
"I guess to you it would be! To us it was normal. So was winning. We had good teams back then, with guys like Armstrong and Mahovlich, or Bower. Real legends. We weren't the butt of jokes, that's for sure."
They certainly were not. The Maple Leafs of Toronto held Stanley's famous cup aloft in 1918, 1922, 1932, 1942, 1945, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1951, 1962, 1963, 1964, and, most recently, in 1967. It would be a suspect few laughing at the Leafs in the first half of the 20th century. The idea of 50 straight trophyless seasons would have seemed utterly absurd in '67.
"I wish I could have lived through that. I'm just hoping we can make one finals by the time I kick it."
"Hah, my poor boy, you will. This team we've got now is on their way! We've got to put the last 50 damn years behind us and look to the next 50. These young lads will get us there, I'm sure of it. We're worlds away from my time, sure, but we can be winners again."
"Matthews pushes it down the ice, skirts one defender as he crosses the blue line. Cuts in, drags the puck back... a quick wrist shot – and he scooooooooores! Goal, Austin Matthews!"
Winning has finally become the norm in Toronto as this young Leafs squad continues to stand their ground in a competitive Atlantic Division. They made the playoffs last year and are poised to do so again. The role of Mike Babcock – so popular in Toronto he's inspired a line of socks – cannot be overstated; the head coach, who has won a Stanley Cup and Olympic gold as bench boss, has really groomed his young talent well.
The Leafs have also brought back the vintage 32-point leaf logo from more successful days to help provide a greater connection to the past, to the 50 years of the franchise that are worth remembering. The simplified 11-point leaf saw nothing but failure in its five decades and has been banished, and with it, the Leafs hope, their inability to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. Put exciting young players in inspiring throwback uniforms and throw in some excellent coaching – it's certainly a good recipe for reaching the promised land.
"Alright kid, are you ready to go?"
"Yeah, grandpa, one sec! I just need to grab my hat!"
Jon put on the weathered snapback hat he had worn to countless games and met his grandfather, who had come down from Guelph, at the door. It was March and they had tickets for a St. Patrick's Day showdown against the Habs. Tonight Jon would also wear a "St. Pats" t-shirt – before 1927, when the team became the Maple Leafs, they were known as the Toronto St. Pats, an attempt to appeal to the large Irish population in the city. Before that they were the blue and white "Arenas."
"You know it's funny, Jon, you wearing that St. Pats shirt... that was way before your time – I remember it!"
"I know, I know, it's just a good look!"
They sat in section 318, row 9, and watched as the Leafs grabbed an 1-0 first period lead on a cool, late-winter Toronto night. Jon, 25-years-old – who had never seen the Leafs even reach the Stanley Cup Finals – and his grandfather sat together, fans of two very different times.
Things got worse for the Habs early in the second as the Leafs grabbed another on a breakaway. They would make it 3-0 before the third and 4-0 by night's end, a solid "W" for the boys in blue.
"I've got a good feeling this year," said Jon's grandfather.