TORONTO – Take a moment and exhale. Feel free to pull out a dart if the urge hits.
Because if you count yourself among the legion of long-sufferers – the paper-bag-wearing, waffle-tossing folks who’ve repeatedly been punched in the gut by their love of the Toronto Maple Leafs – it simply doesn’t get much better than this.
Three games, three overtimes and a 2-1 series lead over the best regular-season team in hockey after Tyler Bozak sent the city into delirium.
“This isn’t pressure,” Nazem Kadri said Monday night. “This is fun for us.”
For fans, this is a little like falling in love.
And this time it’s safe to do so even if it’s far from guaranteed the fairytale will continue into next week.
However, to anyone who was truly moved by the emotions of a game that devolved into delightful madness – the early panic when Washington went ahead 2-0, the dread of a two-minute 5-on-3 penalty kill, the thrill of the comeback and Bozak’s overtime winner – I urge you to take some time to savour whatever it is you’re feeling right now.
This is what it’s all about.
It won’t be too long before a young Leafs team is in a situation resembling these Capitals. When the playoffs will be viewed as Stanley Cup or bust, and gut-wrenching disappointment is forever the bounce of a puck away.
That will be fun, too, but it won’t be like this.
This massive, expectation-free civic celebration – with blue and white Matthews, Marner and Nylander sweaters dotting Maple Leaf Square alongside the Gilmours, Domis and Sittlers dug out from the back of a closet.
“It’s insane,” said Auston Matthews, when asked what his first home playoff game felt like. “You look at the TV up on the Jumbotron and you see the Maple Leaf Square outside. That’s something I’ve never seen before. It’s pretty incredible.
“So it’s pretty special for a city that is so passionate not only for the hockey team, but for all sports teams. It’s a passionate sports city, so it’s a pretty big honour to play in one like this.”
Play they did.
Toronto overcame a nervous start and goals against on the first two shots of the game. It survived that 5-on-3 penalty kill, not to mention another Capitals power play soon after, before bringing an absolute tidal wave of pressure in the third period.
While the 19,861 hoarse-voiced fans in attendance certainly got their money’s worth, most of them didn’t really need a seat. It was end-to-end action, hits, goals and chances.
“It was exciting,” said Kadri. “(We were) very anxious to drop the puck in our home building, we knew it was going to be an electric atmosphere, and we certainly gave them what they wanted to see.”
Things really began to turn after the midway point of the first period, when Kadri twice ran over Brooks Orpik to send a charge through a building that had fallen quiet after the Capitals 2-0 start. That was immediately followed by the first playoff goal of Matthews’s career, when he cruised right down Yonge Street in the Washington zone and got rewarded for his second effort.
One thing that has been abundantly clear so far in this series is the Leafs’ desire. They look hungry and are doing everything in their power to go out and win it.
As for the Caps? They’re talking about bad bounces and trying to escape the narrative of their underachieving past.
And, yet, this Game 3 was really setting up as one you’d expect them to win.
“First of all, I think when we’re up 3-1 and then we’re giving the game away,” said centre Nicklas Backstrom. “They got some lucky goals, but at the same time, that’s hockey. So, up 3-1, we shouldn’t let them in the game again. But we do.”
“They’re capitalizing on their moments,” added Capitals coach Barry Trotz. “We’re not.”
It should be noted that the Leafs also generated more offensively, controlling 58 per cent of the shot attempts at even strength. They were not given a serious chance by outsiders in this series, but many are already rethinking their predictions.
“It’s a lot closer match than people let on,” said Trotz. “It’s not David and Goliath.”
Anything seems possible now.
The Leafs have guaranteed themselves, at minimum, at least two more home dates this spring. Game 4 goes Wednesday night and a Game 6 will be played here on Sunday, if necessary.
Those hold the promise of more opportunities to chart a course up the mountain after years of stumbling around the desert. There was a delightful moment on Monday after Kadri scored to narrow Washington’s lead to 3-2, and Leafs coach Mike Babcock followed by putting his dynamic rookie line out for the final minute of the second period.
Zach Hyman worked the puck free behind the goal with a tenacious forecheck and then Matthews found William Nylander open in front. It took two shots, but he tied the score 3-3 as the building shook around him.
“The playoffs is what we’ve wanted the whole year,” said Matthews. “It’s what they’ve wanted as well.”
No matter what happens next, remember that.
This is exactly what you hoped for, and waited for, and dreamed about. And when was the last time the Leafs gave you that?