Let’s get one thing out of the way here: Hockey isn’t wrestling.
There’s no predetermined heroes and villains and losers and winners. The storylines are fluid and weird and heartbreaking and confusing and emotional. If you want Gary Bettman to be the NHL’s Vince McMahon, it doesn’t work like that.
Sure, you can talk about the playoff format and how it’s the same goddamn Bruins team over and over again.
You’ve got: Bergeron. Marchand. Rask. Chara. Rene Rancourt. Store-brand Rene Rancourt replacement. All guys you love to hate.
But Bettman didn’t use his Hand of God to make Montreal miss the playoffs yet again or convince Ottawa to nearly relegate themselves or for Florida to sell everyone off in the expansion draft or for Buffalo to do everything short of giving Rasmus Ristolainen the captaincy or for Detroit to give every Michigan resident over the age of 35 lifetime access to the arena as long as they could skate 20 minutes a night 82 times a year.
And despite their inexplicable playoff exit in four nights to a Columbus team who started clicking at the perfect time, Bettman didn’t create the Florida Tax structure or weather or great drafting and scouting department or Jon Cooper or anything else that made the Tampa Bay Lightning a delight to watch this season.
So for as much as you hate the playoff format or the NHL or the Bruins or whatever, the first-round matchup for the Leafs remains the same because only three of eight teams in the Atlantic Division really showed they were ready to hang with the big boys this season.
The challenge is the same as last year (and 2013), but it’s different. And though some key pieces left both teams, it’s different because of the largest free agent signing in the last however many years. A $77-million bet that’s worked out beautifully thus far.
John Tavares has, whether you think it justly or not, become both a hero to many and a villian to so many others. Something about dudes named John. We don’t need to rehash the reasons why.
But that New York Islanders team that Tavares left just did something Toronto hasn’t accomplished yet (or since 2004) — winning a playoff series. Talk all you want about luck and goalies and their future and anything else. They did the damn thing. A small step, sure. But still something to look at and realize, “hey, I want that too.”
And you can imagine the takes if Tavares’ Leafs can’t even win four playoff games.
Game 1 the Leafs’ #1 hero was pretty clear. Sure, there was a great goaltending performance from Frederik Andersen, a sublime pass from Nazem Kadri and a great finish from William Nylander.
But you put a 21-year-old kid with a chance to score halfway through the game, after he’s already scored once? And he pulls off that move? Sure, you can pencil that first star in any day of the week.
Game 2 was honestly something nobody will ever remember 58 minutes of like two years from now. The Bruins scored some goals, and Kadri and Jake DeBrusk did some dumb things. One of them got suspended. It is what it is.
And that adds to the challenge for Tavares and the Leafs. Instead of having three great centres, you’ve got two great centres and a winger who you hope works out.
Game 3 a few heroes came out. Auston Matthews, for one, finally scored another playoff goal. Andreas Johnsson and Trevor Moore each popped one in. Andersen was stellar again. Great defensive plays all around.
And what has Tavares done in this series? Well, he’s got three points in three games. All you can ask for.
In Game 1, we’ve got an empty-netter in game one, to go along with an secondary assist on Mitch Marner’s goal that first popped off the post.
Nothing in game 2.
And then there was this beautiful pass in Game 3.
He’s won 59% of his faceoffs so far, taken 13 shots on goal over the three games, and has been matched up mostly against the Bruins’ top line, who have looked anything but like the dominant force they usually are against Toronto.
Tavares has been good. But you don’t remember good playoff performances — you remember great ones.
You’ve gotta believe there’s another gear in there. A two-goal night? A couple key assists? Whatever it takes, John Tavares has a golden opportunity in front of him to get things done and make a statement tonight (and for however many games this series takes).
You’re a big game player. Canada has been seeing it for literally a decade.
So, for lack of better words, Dear John: You left New York. You chose to come home. You scored 47 in the regular season.
Go out there and make that childhood dream come true. The time is now.