All these years of waiting, noses pressed up against the wrong side of the glass, and it had to be the Boston Bruins. The Toronto Maple Leafs were out of the playoffs for close to a decade, and their most pernicious tormentor during that time was Boston, always Boston. It was during the 8-0 game in March last season — as opposed to the 7-0 game, which had come in November — that Randy Carlyle says he really figured out how badly his team needed to change.
“Terrible, terrible,” Carlyle said in advance of Game 1 in Boston Wednesday night. “That was part of us recognizing as a coaching staff and management that things had to change for our group, that we couldn’t afford to be embarrassed at that level … I think we were [six] points out of a playoff spot at that point. We felt like it went to the core of what we were about.
“And it was an eye-opener for us. Those are things that are memories. [Do they leave] scars? You learn to deal with those things and move on, because you can’t change what happened. All you can do is prepare for it not to happen again.”
Those games will not be repeated verbatim — as Dion Phaneuf puts it, Zen-like: “The past is in the past right now, to be completely honest with you” — but this is a fascinating moment for the Leafs organization. They won four of six against Boston in 2011, the year the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, but the Bruins have been their personal bully for years, even if the Leafs got to keep their lunch money.
And they are intertwined. Toronto traded goaltender Tuukka Rask to the Bruins in 2006 for the magic beans of Andrew Raycroft, and the Phil Kessel trade in 2009 was the defining moment of Brian Burke’s since-extinguished tenure. Boston is tied to Toronto, and Toronto is tied to Boston.
“Another time we play them,” Kessel said. “Nothing changes, right? We’re going to have to go in there, they’re a great team, we’re going to have to battle.”
He’s not right that nothing changes, or at least, not yet. After a season in which the Leafs managed to outperform their statistical fundamentals, and the Bruins rode a hot start and coasted in, both teams have a chance to prove something about themselves to themselves. To the other guys, too, but that’s a bonus.
“We feel like we can go into any building and have a chance for success, and I don’t know if we could say that before,” Carlyle said.
“In this league, any team can beat any other team on any night,” says Toronto winger James van Riemsdyk, who was on the Philadelphia team that came back from an 0-3 deficit in 2010 to beat Boston. “So I mean, it’s not like there’s teams when you’re trying to play the Soviets in 1980, and you’re Team USA.”
Kessel spoke to the media Tuesday after declining to do so Monday, which shouldn’t have been a surprise since he is perhaps the least comfortable star player anybody has ever seen when it comes to public speaking. He doesn’t like it, and it’s hard to blame a guy for not liking to talk to people. Talk to enough people, and you’ll have an inkling how he feels.
“Some of the stuff’s kind of funny, like people making a big deal about him not wanting to talk,” van Riemsdyk said. “He doesn’t talk when he’s scoring goals, he doesn’t talk when he’s not scoring goals. That’s just how he is, and I dunno. He’s obviously a good player.”
It was a tactical error, though, because it allowed people to puff on about how Kessel was scared of Boston, where he played for three years, and against whom he has been regularly devoured by Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron in the 22 games since the trade. This dovetailed nicely with the idea that the Leafs have no chance, which is only partly based on the fact that they have played some heels-on-the-edge-of-the-cliff hockey for about a month. It’s Boston. Boston wins.
This all ignores a few things. One, Kessel doesn’t like talking anytime and being eaten alive by Bergeron and Chara is not likely fear-related. Two, the Bruins have been a drifting iceberg for nearly two months now, and Monday their general manager, Peter Chiarelli, spent a conference call with the media wondering aloud what the hell they would do when the post-season began.
“I would hope there’s an element to their character, with the experience that they have, that they’re going to step up their play,” Chiarelli told reporters. “I see that coming a little bit in the last three games. I’ve seen snippets of it here, mainly from the emotional and physical viewpoint.
“But you can’t turn it on and off like a switch. You can’t just expect to have success after not performing at a certain level. We’ll certainly see.”
And this series will not define the legacy of the Kessel trade, or of Kessel; it will just be a piece of it. The Leafs are an underdog, but this is not the Boston that beat them 8-0. Chara was on the ice for a Frazer McLaren goal this year, for goodness sakes; things happen. Bruins winger Jaromir Jagr told reporters the other day in the playoffs, ‘You can be a bigger hero or you can be a bigger zero.’ It’s not that zero sum of a game, or at least it shouldn’t be.
Either way, the Leafs have a chance and that beats every single thing that has happened to them over the past nine years. And before the games are actually played, everyone can be pretty Zen about it. According to the Bruins’ official Twitter account, Milan Lucic’s pre-playoffs Zen koan was, ‘We know we need to come out in Game 1 the way we need to know how to play.’
That goes for the Leafs, too. Whatever it means.
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