By now you know the story. The Toronto Maple Leafs surged out to a 4-1 lead against the Bruins in Boston in the third period of Game 7. Their stars had answered the bell in the biggest game of their young careers. Kessel from Kadri, Kadri from Kessel, the scoresheet showed Gardiner, it showed van Riemsdyk.
And then hockey happened. It all came undone.
For fans, a three-goal lead is enough to talk to one another comfortably. It’s enough to laugh, it’s enough to text, it’s enough for most people to get up and go pee and miss a minute of the game. But when the lead was cut to two by Nathan Horton with ten minutes left, it was time to quiet down and pay attention again. Too much time, not enough of a cushion. The stress-factor was reintroduced.
As someone who recently moved to Toronto, I loved the Nathan Horton goal from a playful teasing perspective. I haven’t endured the decades of suffering and real-life worst-case scenarios that so many Leaf-ites have, so I thought it was funny that it wasn’t going to be easy down the stretch for the team in blue. Even when Boston made it 4-3 with the goalie pulled and under 90 seconds left, in my mind it all just meant that it was going to feel that much better for Leafs fans. And before folks had time to contemplate the possibility of the whole ball of yarn unravelling, a cat in the form of Patrice Bergeron tore across the room, grabbed the string, and unfurled it in front of their eyes.
Sometimes hockey happens. Everything you do as a player on the ice is designed to increase your odds of success. There’s no guarantee that an Alex Ovechkin one-timer is going to go in, but it has better odds than a Mike Ribiero wrist shot, so you try to set up the former. “Throwing the puck on net” is no guarantee of success, but if you throw a screen in front of the goalie, you never know what might go in. Pulling the goalie is a good way to give up a goal, but dammit, you never know if that extra guy is going to make all the difference at the other end and help your team bang a puck in the net, so you pull your tender when you need a goal.
For the Leafs and Bruins last night, hockey just happened. Boston was in a situation where all they could do is maximize their odds of success and hope, and the odds gave way. A ten percent chance of rain doesn’t mean it isn’t going to rain, and at the right time at the biggest moment the heavens opened up and poured for Boston.
With Toronto in the hockey equivalent of football’s prevent defense, the Bruins tilted the ice like a jug of water and let James Reimer try to keep the spigot shut, and he simply couldn’t. There was no major technical flaw. There was no major personnel deficiency. It would be easier if the Leafs could wake up today and say “If only ____ had happened,” but they can’t after giving up four goals in 16 huge minutes of game play.
The Toronto Maple Leafs got swallowed by a moment, by the sheer fact that it’s not easy to score goals in hockey and they were up by three in the third and even the worst team in the league will hold on against the league’s best nine times out of 10 in that scenario. It just wasn’t supposed to play out for them this way, it couldn’t, until it did.
I liked last night’s game because it wasn’t a story that can’t really be told by numbers. The technical aspects seem to give way to the human element last night. Pressure mattered, clutch happened.
Patrice Bergeron and the Bruins stepped their game up when things got thick while the Leafs wilted, maybe because one team has been there before and felt it before. One team had been through the gut-wrenching post-season losses and felt the euphoria of succeeding before, while the other hadn’t. The flood of goals may have partially been luck, but the Bruins ability to tilt the ice when they needed it most seemed to come from experience. They rose up.
It was one hell of a hockey game. As much emotion as it stirred up here in Toronto, the Bruins rain washed most of it away overnight and left people in this city with one shared feeling: disbelief.