There wasn’t even supposed to be a season at all. In September of 2012, hope for an NHL season was bleak. It looked as though the greed from both parties was going to overtake the love of the game and completely wipe out hockey for the year. It looked this way until January 6th, when the magical words were spoken: The NHL and NHLPA had come to an agreement. There would be hockey this year. Even though I was still pissed at the NHL for all it has put its fans through, I was happy. I finally got hockey, and my Leafs, back.
After a week long training camp, we got to see how the teams shaped out. Toronto had made a couple key acquisitions over the summer and I was pretty interested to see how they would work out. There were a few surprises too, with Tim Connolly, among others, not making the team straight out of camp. When I looked at this roster on paper, even after all the crap that happened last season, I thought we had a chance to make the playoffs if we got off to a quick start, and we did just that. In our first game of the season, the Leafs beat the Montreal Canadiens 2-1 on goals from Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak, both of whom would end up having an immense impact on the outcome of the leafs season (well, in Kadris case).
After a decent start to the season, the Leafs got their first real test of the year: The Boston Bruins. The Bruins had dominated the Leafs over the past few years, especially last season. The thought was that if the leafs could compete with the Bruins, they could compete with anyone. Well compete they did, losing 1-0 in a game they probably should have won. Things were looking up in leafs nation, and for good reason.
Over the next couple of games, fans started to get increasingly frustrated with Phil Kessel, as he went 10 games to open the season without scoring a goal. Well, he ended the year tied for 7th in scoring with Tyler Bozak as his centerman, so… There’s that.
The next major leafs storyline this season was the emergence of Nazem Kadri. Brian Burke’s first draft pick as GM, Kadri was slated to be the next great player in the Leafs organization. That was back in 2007. Many fans had become frustrated with Kadri, suggesting the Leafs trade him, among others, to Vancouver for star goalie Roberto Luongo. Thank god we didn’t. Kadri was given a real shot with the Leafs this season and boy, did he ever deliver. The 22 year old scored 44 points in 48 games, becoming one of the core pieces in a young Leafs team looking to make a statement.
And so the season went on, and I watched the Leafs clinch their first playoff birth since I was in the fourth grade (I’m going to university next year). There was a buzz that was building around Toronto that I had never really been a part of… You could tell that playoffs in this city just meant so much to the fans that had been deprived of them for so long… It was just special, that’s really the only word to describe it.
As the season wound down, we were left to play our last game of the season against a team that we had pretty much owned all season long: the Montreal Canadiens. The stakes were pretty high for this one. A Leafs win would guarantee them a first round matchup with the Canadiens but a loss would pit us against the big bad Bruins. All Leaf fans with a brain wanted Toronto to win, naturally, so that they could face the easier opponent. Too bad it didn’t work out that way. The team that we had dominated all season long suddenly looked like a different squad, handing our asses to us in a 4-1 win at the ACC.
By the time the start of the playoffs rolls around, I, along with 99% of other Leafs fans, weren’t too confident in the Leafs’ playoff chances. Even though we had played Boston hard all season long, this was still a team 2 years removed from a Stanley Cup win and honestly just a group that was built for the postseason. So, with all that taken into account, the Leafs began their journey to the Stanley Cup.
Game 1 – Toronto (1) @ Boston (4)
If this game didn’t scare the crap out of you (as a leafs fan), I’m not sure what will. The Leafs came out strong, getting an early goal from JVR to put them ahead by 1, but that’s pretty much all they did besides turn the puck over. I think game 1 was one of the worst all around performances the Leafs had all season. They were basically handing the puck to the B’s every time it was on their sticks. Honestly, it just looked like an extremely nervous team that was dealing with the pressures of the playoffs. The only positive that I took from this game was that all the mistakes being made were fixable, and that’s something the Leafs really worked on to get ready for game 2.
Game 2 – Toronto (4) @ Boston (2)
This one started out like you’d imagine, with Boston going up 1-0 after a number of chances provided to them by Leaf givaways. After the goal, though, something interesting happened. The Leafs began to… outplay… the Bruins? In the playoffs? What? Yeah, so much so that they ended up taking a 2-1 lead on a pair of Joffrey Lupul goals. I really believe that this was the turning point in the series for the Leafs, because from this point forward they were the better team 80% of the time. Anyways, the Leafers ended up taking this one 4-2 to even up the series at 1 a piece.
Game 3 – Boston (5) @ Toronto (2)
Now, the score is a little deceiving here, because the Leafs didn’t play that bad of a game. A couple key turnovers led to a few Bruin goals but other than that, the Leafs played a pretty solid game. It looked like they were a little nervous to be playing their first home playoff game in 9 years, and kind of realized that the pressure that accompanies playoff hockey in Toronto.
Game 4 – Boston (4) – Leafs (3) OT
This game might have been my favorite just because I had the opportunity to head down to Maple Leafs Square, along with 15 000 other Leaf fans, and watch the game outside. Just touching on MLSQ for a second, that might have been one of the best sport experiences I’ve ever been a part of. The fans down there are awesome and I know that if we make it to the postseason again next year, I’ll definitely be heading down for more than just one game. ANYWAYS, back to hockey. The Leafs came out strong, again, scoring 2 goals in the first period to take a quick lead. That didn’t last long. Boston came out gunning in the 2nd, scoring 3 goals to silence the crowd down at the ACC. At the end of the second, MaCarthur decides that he’s going to start scoring again and ties the game at 3’s. The score held up for the third which meant I got to witness probably the most fun, nerve-wracking, and inspirational thing in all of sports: Overtime NHL playoff hockey. There’s nothing better. I thought the Leafs had it won it off a shot by Frattin (I think) but luckily for Boston, it hit the post. A couple minutes passed, with not much going on, until ‘that play’ happened. Let me just say, I love Phaneuf, so I’m not going to rip him at all. He knows it was a stupid play. It’s over and done with. Anyways, Phaneuf makes an ill-advised pinch, gets caught, O’byrne decides he feels like shitting the bed as well by just letting Krejci walk in, and Boston scores, giving them a commanding 3-1 series lead in a game that Toronto should have won.
Game 5 – Toronto (2) – Boston (1)
Leaf fans can thank the hell outta James Reimer for this one. He absolutely, 100% stole this game for us, which we needed badly. That save on Bergeron has to be one of the best stops of the playoffs, if not the season entirely. Honestly, I just wanted to make it past game 5 so we could say we did better than the habs, but man, was I in for a surprise.
Game 6 – Boston (1) – Toronto (2)
After learning that Tyler Bozak was going to be out for this one, I really felt like the leafs’ comeback was going to fall short. He was the only player on the entire team that could win a faceoff. This was exactly the kind of situation that made me regret the Leafs trading Steckel for pretty much nothing, and something that the Leafs are going to need to address during the off season. Either way, both teams played an extremely tight game, with the Leafs coming out on top, earning their first playoff win on home ice and forcing an all deciding game 7 in Boston the following night.
Game 7 – Boston (5) – Toronto (4) OT
At the beginning of the playoffs, I predicted that the Leafs would lose in 5 games, so the fact that they made it to a game 7 was enough for me. Something was different though; I actually had confidence in the clear underdog in this series. The game started off by completely shattering my hopes, with a goal off of a terrible Cody Franson turnover, bringing me back to the terrible memory of game one. But again, like from game 2 onward, the Leafs began to outplay the Bruins. Franson made up for his mistake, scoring the next 2 Leaf goals, giving us a 2-1 lead that we actually held all the way to the third. To start the third, the Leafs scored another 2 goals, taking a commanding 4-1 lead with only 10 minutes left to go. Since after game 2, I figured that if we we’re going to play that well, we’d only have to deal with the first 5 minutes of the first period and the last 5 minutes of the third and we’d be fine. That couldn’t have been more true in the most crucial game not only of the series, but arguably of the decade for the Leafs. With 10 minutes to go, Nathan Horton scored a pretty predictable goal, cutting the Leafs’ lead to 2. Personally, I wasn’t too worried, as the Leafs had protected 1 goal leads in each of the last 2 games. Another 8 or so minutes passed until Lucic put yet another goal past Reimer, cutting the lead to 1 with just under a minute and a half to go. Even though there wasn’t much time left on the clock, you could feel another goal coming… You just knew it was coming. Sadly, that was the case, as Patrice Bergeron scored on a screened Reimer from the point. If you told me at the beginning of the series that the Leafs would take Boston to game 7 OT, I’d take that in a heartbeat, but not that night. It felt as though we’d lost even though both teams had an even chance at winning. Long story short, 5 minutes into overtime, Patrice Bergeron scores and finishes what would end up being one of the greatest playoff comebacks in NHL history.
I literally felt sick after Bergeron scored that goal. It’s been 3 days and I still haven’t watched highlights from the game, and I don’t think I ever will. But when you think about it, this is what sports are all about… I went through every emotion possible while watching this game, and even though it ended up being one of the shittiest feelings ever, I’ll take that any day over another 9 years without the playoffs.
Honestly, I’m just glad I got to watch hockey this year.