TORONTO (May 3) — It was, in a word, perfection. Or, as near as a hockey team can reasonably approach that elusive target. Casting full and boundless credit on Brendan Shanahan, Kyle Dubas, Sheldon Keefe and all the men wearing predominantly blue; the architects of a 5–0 dismantling of the Stanley Cup champions. And, it begs an immediate question: How many such performances as Monday night, should they occur, will be required for the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans to think beyond the primary objective? No person affiliated with the hockey club will admit that jobs, on and off the ice, hinge almost solely on getting past the opening playoff round for the first time since 2004. Even if it’s true. Yet, winning the battle in Round 1 is merely 25 percent of the war.
As such, when might the worm turn so drastically as to include the Stanley Cup?
I’ll admit there’s a part of me that has occasionally wondered if the Leafs might not only end their 55–year championship drought this season, but pull a 2012 Los Angeles Kings and romp to the title in close to the minimum number of games. I had the privilege of covering all 20 Kings matches in that spring, a decade ago, as Darryl Sutter guided his team to an otherworldly 16–4 record. Los Angeles tore a swath through Western rivals Vancouver, St. Louis and Arizona before hitting a minor speed–bump against Martin Brodeur and the Devils. That L.A. team accomplished a feat that may never be duplicated: winning the first two games of all four playoff series on the road. It was rather intoxicating to be at the Staples Center for the crowning victory, June 11, as the Kings destroyed New Jersey, 6–1, for their first NHL title (Sutter’s gang would win again, two years later, knocking off the Rangers).
It is obviously premature to consider the current Leafs duplicating L.A.’s 2012 masterpiece… or even their own classic performance in the series opener against Tampa Bay. But, there was nothing — and I mean absolutely zilch — to dislike from a Toronto perspective. It looked, for all eyes to see, like a match between a young, ambitious, hungry team and an older, “been–there, done–that” opponent. Almost never in the Jon Cooper–Andrei Vasilevskiy–Victor Hedman–Steven Stamkos era has the Lightning been reduced to such ineptness.
And it showed that all the focus around here on winning a single playoff round is, quite frankly, garbage — akin to leading after the first quarter of a football game. In that regard, maybe the Leafs raised their own performance bar on Monday, more befitting of a team that went 16–3–2 down the stretch in the regular schedule. True, one of the losses was an 8–1 pasting in Tampa, but without Auston Matthews or Jack Campbell. Monday’s playoff opener more vastly resembled the 6–2 triumph at Amalie Arena on Apr. 4 which followed, by six nights, Toronto’s most–thorough effort of the season, a 6–4 victory in Boston that wasn’t nearly as close as indicated by the final score.
Many teams executing in such a manner would be acknowledged as a clear–cut Stanley Cup contender; perhaps even a favorite. But, not the Leafs. Not in a hockey city that has long fantasized about Round 2 of the Cup chase.
So, maybe; just MAYBE, the utter beatdown of the Lightning will begin to alter the silly narrative around here.
Hindsight shows that fans needed to watch only three minutes of Game 1 — in the aftermath of Kyle Clifford’s boneheaded check from behind on Ross Colton at 6:59 of the first period. Tampa, on a five–minute powerplay, never had the puck. The Leafs came in shorthanded waves at Vasilevskiy and Alex Kerfoot rang a shot off the goalpost. When Jake Muzzin, of all players, put the home side in front at 18:19 of the opening frame, it was lights out for the defending champs. Icing on the cake for the Leafs was a line brawl late in the third period from which Jan Rutta of Tampa emerged like a victim of the old wrestling heel, The Sheik; his forehead battered and bloodied.
So much, for one night, about Toronto’s inability to cope with the amped up physical slog of the playoffs.
When you whip your opponent on the ice and in the alley (as Leafs founder Conn Smythe was fond of saying), confidence unavoidably soars. It’s an accomplice the Leafs will likely need when the puck is dropped tomorrow night in Game 2. The Lightning players have been living out of suitcases for the past week after finishing their season with road games against Columbus and the Islanders, then traveling directly here for the playoff opener. During that time, the Leafs have been in the comfort of their own beds and surroundings. All of which changes after Wednesday’s second match. If the wily Lightning can rebound and square the series before finally getting home for Games 3 and 4, the exhilaration around here will dissipate like air escaping from a balloon. Conversely, another spanking by the young bucks in the home jerseys might exhaust much of the determination and resolve of a team that cannot soar any higher than in the past two seasons. Either scenario is plausible. But, the latter could finally abolish the minimal, yet oh–so–dreamy “accomplishment” of prevailing in a single Stanley Cup round.
At some point, this hockey market needs to start thinking big.
Monday night’s thorough taming of the two–time champs was an exquisite first step.