Sunday, April 21, 2013

Brace Yourself: Spring is Coming

maple leafs playoffs game of thrones
Our hellacious wait is mercifully over, Leafs fans. The Toronto Maple Leafs are going back to the playoffs.

It still feels surreal, somewhat like a dream. That's what happens when you go almost a decade watching futility. Losing becomes your reality.

When the Leafs clinched a playoff berth Saturday night in Ottawa—which amazingly wasn't even the last day of the season—I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The Toronto Maple Leafs are going to the playoffs. What a world we live in.

In the season preview I wrote: "Until the Leafs are actually in the playoffs, [you should be] extremely guarded. Even if up 10 points on the last day of the season don't rule out an asteroid hitting Earth."

I'm still waiting for that asteroid to hit.

I'm still waiting for Gary Bettman and Don Fehr to announce a joint press conference to tell us that the NHL and the NHLPA haven't really agreed to a new CBA, there was a last minute snag. Lockout back on, sorry Toronto.

I'm still waiting for the trap door to fall out beneath me. I'm still waiting for the punch line. I'm still waiting for this to be taken away somehow.

This can't be real, right?

Like an abused dog, I'm wary of these good feelings. I'm suspicious of the treat I'm given. What's the catch? There's got to be some sort of catch.

And who can blame me for feeling this way? Pretty much everything that could go wrong for the Leafs did go wrong over the last decade. The Muskoka Five, Andrew Raycroft/Vesa Toskala/Jonas Gustavsson, Tyler Seguin/Dougie Hamilton/Tuukka Rask, the New York Islanders and Wade Dubielewicz, NTCs and brutal free agent signings, JFJ being terrible and Brian Burke surprisingly not being able to do much better. It was hell, on par and perhaps even worse than the 1980s, a decade without a winning season.

It seemingly came out of nowhere. The Leafs went from a perennial contender in the late-90s, early 2000s, to a bottom-dwelling punching bag. It all happened so quickly.

The initial shock of missing the playoffs in 2006 was soon erased by a yearly numbness. The Leafs were bad, always. Even when there were glimmers of hope, like James Reimer reviving the team in 2011, they were stamped out quickly—like Reimer's concussion the next season.

But the forthcoming playoffs are shining a light on some of the not-so-bad moments. Sure, Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton should be pretty good players, but Phil Kessel is about to finish his second consecutive year in the top 10 in league scoring. Nazem Kadri broke out in a big way, silencing the cries that he was a bust and making Brayden Schenn a forgotten name. James van Riemsdyk turned into a first-line winger in Toronto. There's finally a goalie, too. Reimer has proved he's more Cujo than Razor, shaking off an injury-plagued 2011-12 and making it apparent his sophomore season was the outlier year, not his sizzling rookie campaign.

This is just the first step in a quest for relevance, and is admittedly the bare minimum for success. But it's also a big step for the organization. It's a big step for the fans.

Your patience has finally paid off, Leafs fans. Congratulations, Spring is coming.

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