0Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

My Five Favourite Leafs Moments of 2017

For the non-sports world, 2017 was a thoroughly horrifying year.

America continued to implode, every celebrity you had ever admired was revealed to be a terrible person, and “Young Sheldon” was TV’s #1 new show.

Now, if you happened to be a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, your 2017 was quite the opposite.

On a nightly basis, the Buds spoiled you with record-shattering performances, gif-worthy moments, and, most precious of all, hope.

So, as 2017 comes to a close, I thought I’d share with you some of my favourite Leaf-related moments from this bountiful calendar year. Indulge me, if you will, as we stroll down memory lane.

The Centennial Classic

Have you ever experienced moments in life that led you to question whether or not you had actually been living one elaborate Truman Show-esque conspiracy?

Well, the poetic nature of the Centennial Classic pretty much drove me into an existential crisis. Let’s admire just how perfectly this game ended up unfolding.

The Leafs opponent was an Original Six team (not that that really matters) in Detroit, who just so happened to be Supreme Leader Brendan Shannahan’s former team. In fact, Shannahan suited up AGAINST Toronto in the Alumni Game. And we were cool with it!

Toronto also possessed a stable of rookies, 8 to be exact, who participated in the contest. In the days leading up to puck drop, those same rookies, most of them teenagers, were given the chance to chum it up with Leaf legends of old.

Lanny McDonald’s reaction at the time summed it up best, with him exclaiming, “Everyone’s like ‘Oh my god. That’s three generations right there.’ It was awesome.”

It sure was, Lanny. It sure was.

Still, the true poetic nature of the game began to shine through once the puck dropped.

Up until that point, Leaf teams of the 2010’s had been defined by two dreaded words: game seven. Now, much like that fateful night in 2013, Toronto held a 4-1 lead late in the 3rd period. And, as if it were ripped from a rejected Mighty Ducks script, they proceeded to blow said lead and push the game to overtime.

And yet, in the midst of the despair, there existed one factor separating that team from their 2013 counterparts. That factor was none other than Auston Matthews.

In nothing short of a movie moment, Toronto’s brightest young hope pushed his team over the hurdle it had failed to overcome for so many years. In doing so, on the day dedicated to the franchise’s centennial celebration, it issued a statement to the rest of the NHL.

These aren’t the old Leafs. These Leafs are different. And these Leafs should be feared.

McElhinney’s Debut vs Ottawa

Hear me out.

The circumstances surrounding this seemingly-routine mid-January contest between two provincial rivals are what truly made it special.

Not only was Curtis McElhinney, a recently waiver-claimed goaltender, making his Leaf debut during Hockey Night in Canada. This game also happened to fall on the night of Hockey Night in Cinema, Steve Dangle’s fabled event.

The event just so happened to take place in London, Ontario. What’s McElhinney’s hometown, you ask? Well, dear reader, that would be the fine city of London, Ontario.

Never doubt a hockey writer’s ability to manufacture a narrative out of thin air.

Full disclosure, I attended the event, and it was hilarious. My girlfriend, who had tagged along out of the goodness of her own heart, asked me how to correctly pronounce McElhinney’s last name approximately 3,000 times throughout the evening.

The game was screened in a movie theatre, packed to the brim with Leaf fans, all screaming their collective lungs out every time McElhinney made a save.

And boy, did he make some saves. 35 of them to be exact.

At the end of the day, the Leafs ended up riding their veteran backup to a 4-2 win, sending the entire theatre into chaos. Not only did a perpetually mediocre goaltender stonewall the Leafs most hated rival in his debut, but the win momentarily leapfrogged Toronto over the Ottawa Senators in the Atlantic Division standings, and into a playoff spot.

It was a perfect storm of underdog stories, pizza, and Sens bashing. What a night.

This Hug

If your face doesn’t forcibly contort itself into a smile while watching this gif, I can’t help you. No one can help you.

It’s like watching an estranged father finally play catch with his son. Only, this father/son duo are curb stomping the Winnipeg Jets instead. This is the warm ray of light needed in this cold, dark world.

Game 3

Not even drawing the President Trophy-winning Washington Capitals as their 1st round opponent was going to dampen the city-wide celebration over the Leafs miraculously making the playoffs.

The joy was supposed to be short-lived, as the super-team Caps were expected to dispatch the Leafs without so much as breaking a sweat. “Leafs in 3”, mocked voices from every corner of the hockey globe.

Not so fast, world. (I know they ended up eliminating the Leafs. Just let me have this one)

This game marked the 1st time in 13 years that the Leafs held a lead in a playoff series. To put this in perspective, I was in grade 3. So, of course, it unfolded in the most dramatic of fashions.

First, Matthews scored a goal by deflecting a puck off of Brooks “I Should Have Been Bought Out By Now” Orpik’s face.

And later, with the Caps leading 3-2 in the third period, the youngsters took matters into their own, youthful hands. Zach Hyman hounded down a puck and flipped it to Matthews, who then flipped it to William Nylander, who, on his second try, buried it.

The goal not only tied the game but, more importantly, introduced the world to Old Man Respectfully Fist Pumping™.

For all the grief fans give Tyler Bozak, and it hasn’t all been unwarranted, it cannot be understated how tumultuous this team’s surroundings have been throughout his tenure.

Bozak has played for a murderers row of coaches the likes of Ron Wilson, Randy Carlyle, and Peter Horachek. And by “murderers row”, I clearly mean coaches who are most likely to murder their young players’ development.

Therefore, it’s only fitting that it would be Bozak who would score the OT winner, thus ending over a decade of playoff futility. Not only was the goal historic in that sense, but it also succeeded in forcing Lou Lamoriello to emote!

The NHL Playoffs: History Will be Made™

The Clinch

This game will be written about in history books.

And not only because the Leafs are the centre of the universe and therefore should be historically documented at every chance. No, this game was historically bonkers.

You already know the stakes.

Beat Pittsburgh and the Leafs are playoff-bound for the first time since 2004 (I know 2013 happened and I don’t care). Lose and they HAVE to win against Columbus mere hours later, lest their season be over. It was, in every conceivable fashion, do or die.

Unfortunately, Tom Sestito – the poor man’s Zach Rinaldo – took the term “do or die” extremely literally, believing he had to actually murder his opponent.

I’ll be frank with you, folks. When Sestito bowled over Frederik Andersen, I thought it was all over.

Not only would the Leafs lose the game. But, even if they did win, they’d be forced to start Curtis McElhinney in a playoff series. YIKES.

All was lost. Until it wasn’t.

As Andersen lay motionless on the ice, something beautiful happened. The entire ACC crowd began chanting Andersen’s name. It started slow, eventually divulging into a deafening crescendo.

And, like a majestic phoenix, Andersen began to rise, seemingly resurrected by the support of his fellow brethren. It was at that moment, and that moment alone, that I knew the Leafs would win this game.

My belief was ultimately rewarded when Connor Brown, the life-long Leafs fan, scored the go-ahead goal to make playoff dreams come true.

You will never be happier about anything in your life than Brown was to score that goal. I guarantee it.

Naturally, Matthews scored the empty netter to stamp the Leafs ticket. And with that, the entirety of Leaf Nation began believing in magic again.

Happy New Year!

 

 

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