Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SPORTS
Those who have followed the Toronto Maple Leafs through the rebuild process have been hearing constantly about the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks. After all, they’re two of hockey’s most perrenially competitive teams, two of three teams that have made multiple stops to the Stanley Cup well in the Salary Cap era, and they followed the same model: be bad for a while, accumulate talent, establish a vital core, and constantly develop interchangable sub-pieces to use in their friendliest cap-years.
We know that’s where the Leafs are going, but when it gets there is a question. But you felt it with the other two teams.
With the Blackhawks, there was a certain individual effort one night that put the franchise on everybody’s watch list, which made they say “well, maybe this team has some talent up their sleeve”. For them, it was Jonathan Toews “bringing the franchise back from dead” against the Colorado Avalanche in his rookie year.
They sputtered for a while, but the core grew, and things started to get serious. People started to take notice, especially when they took a run to the Western Conference Finals, but there wasn’t an “oh shit” moment yet. Come the 2009 playoffs, though, they had their first playoff game to play in half a decade, against the Calgary Flames. They fell behind 1-0 just eight minutes into the game, tied it up, and fell behind again early in the third. But Martin Havlat saved the day with five and a half minutes to go, the Hawks pushed as hard as they could to ride the momentum, and in the opening seconds of overtime..
From then on, it was just a matter of time before they found their finish line. While the team, fresh off their best season since 1991 “only” made it to the Conference Finals, they went on to win the Stanley Cup the next season. Babcock has referenced the team, who his Red Wings eliminated, as a parallel to this year’s Leafs core in the past. “To be honest with you, I’m hoping we’re a lot like Chicago was,” said Babcock on October 22nd, 2016. “They were just starting to pick up speed, and they’ve had a real good run here, so we’d like to have a real good run and we’ve got lots of kids and we’re trying to learn how to play just like they were.”
The Penguins were the laughing stock of the league, until Sidney Crosby showed up. Crosby had already started to put together a well over point per game pace, but the Penguins were losing games left and right, going 4 for 19 heading into an internationally broadcast game against his childhood favourite team, the Montreal Canadiens. It went to a shootout and the game was on his stick.
The league collectively froze at that moment. It was right then and there, in front of the entire hockey world, where it became abundantly clear that this kid was something more special than even the hype machine was selling, and that if he got some support, great things would happen.
Two years later, the NHL had a crazy idea to have an outdoor game in the middle of downtown Buffalo on a New Years Eve. The Crosby show was a booming business for them, but the Penguins themselves were struggling after making a playoff appearance the year prior. Through November 21st, they were 8-11-2. Things had started to come back around and the team had crawled back above 0.500 shortly before the festivities, but they needed a statement.
You could argue that this goal is among the most iconic moments of the post “lost season” era, and for good reason. The then-foreign nature of an outdoor game. The fact it was a shootout. The fact Sid had the game on his stick. The celebration that followed.
It encapsulated the league, but it did so in a way that reminded everybody that Crosby and the Penguins were about to won it. From that game on, they went 28-9-6 to close out the year, won 11 of their first 12 playoff games, and went all the way to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals losing to… Mike Babcock’s Detroit Red Wings. They did get revenge in the following year, though.
Now, the Toronto Maple Leafs are a bit of a different situation. A lot of their cupboard stocking came while the team was in denial or in transition, so as such, the process looks like it’s moving a little faster than it should. Their “tank year” team had a better record and played better hockey than the last years of Chicago and Pittsburgh’ earth-scorchings, and if their performance is any indication, they’re on their way to having a better first climb up season. So it’s fitting that they may have had their “hello world” and “it’s our turn” moments in quicker succession, as well.
While diehard fans will tell you the post-deadline youth invasion was the beginning of the light (I’m partial to Nikita Soshnikov’s first goal in March), Auston Matthews’ four goal NHL debut was no doubt what made the league realize that there was something there. A talent brought to the team by despair and by luck wasted no time to show people that his age wasn’t going to stop him from making an impact, seemingly washing away every middling talent who put on the sweater in the years before him in one fell swoop.
Last night may have already been the second strike, though. In a highly publicized outdoor game, one hosted in Toronto for the first time in history, one that was broadcast nationally in Canada and the USA, relayed to countless others around the world, the Leafs seemed to be poised to play the Leafiest game ever. One where the team was dominant for stretches, took a 4-1 third period lead, and collapsed in a way that reminded a franchise record 40,000+ fans of their most heartbreaking defeat in this era.
But in a game that the league pitched as a celebration of the past century of the sport, Toronto’s rising star gave it the ol’ “Not today”. Jake Gardiner threw the puck off the boards in a way that looked eerily similar to Babcock’s “active bounce” set plays at Joe Louis Arena, and their 19-year-old superstar made the most of it. Why? These aren’t the old Leafs, this wasn’t going to be an old Leafs game, and this wasn’t going to end in what people have accepted as the inevitable Leafs way.
As it stands, Toronto sits third in the Atlantic Division in points percentage, they’re in the top half of the league in most advanced metrics (including elite numbers in some of them), and they’re on their biggest winning streak of the year. Will it last? That remains to be seen, though this looks more likely to be a pattern than an anomoly. One thing is is almost definite, though; whether or not they take a brief look back before reaching the heights they’d like to, last night will be the moment that’s pinpointed as the breakthrough.