Johnston on Leafs: It’s been a long time coming

Toronto Maple Leafs left winger Joffrey Lupul, left, celebrates his goal with centre Nazem Kadri. (CP/Frank Gunn)

BOSTON – It was 3,284 days ago, the last time the Toronto Maple Leafs played a playoff game, and you’ll never guess where Randy Carlyle was that night:

Sitting in the reds at Air Canada Centre.

Then the coach of the Manitoba Moose, Carlyle was in town with one of his sons and made a phone call to the organization that drafted him as a player and now employs him as its coach. He landed a pair of pricey tickets — “I paid for them,” said Carlyle — and witnessed first-hand the overtime goal by Jeremy Roenick that turned out the lights on playoff hockey in Toronto for nearly nine years.

They’re being turned back on tonight with a little help from the veteran coach.

Carlyle realized as well as anybody that things needed to change after he was hired by the Leafs last season. It was a game right here at Boston’s TD Garden — one of 18 he coached before an extended summer — that drove the point home most.

All he really remembers now about the 8-0 loss to the Bruins on March 19, 2012 is that it left him feeling “terrible.”

“That was part of us recognizing … that things had to change for our group, that we couldn’t afford to be embarrassed to that level,” said Carlyle. “It was an eye-opener for us.”

Before the players went their separate ways for the summer the expectations were made clear.

Jobs would have to be earned. Ordinary performances were no longer acceptable. And it was going to be up to every single man who pulls on a sweater to help restore pride to the organization.

“We were not going to allow contracts or term or favourites or whatever word you want to use to describe it — it was going to be based on merit,” said Carlyle. “If you earned the opportunity to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs you were going to get that opportunity.

“But you had to earn it.”

The playoffs were always part of the plan. At least that’s how the story is told now.

When general manager Dave Nonis succeeded Brian Burke just days before the start of the shortened season, he went out of his way to avoid placing any public expectations on what was going to be a young team.

His personality is obviously quite different than that of his predecessor.

However, just because there were no bold statements doesn’t mean there weren’t lofty intentions.

“We never mentioned the playoffs because I didn’t think that that was an appropriate thing to do given where we were,” said Nonis. “But our goal all along was always to try to put ourselves in the position where we could see what our team looked like in the post-season, where we could see what our young players could do in another situation.

“From that standpoint we’re pretty happy with where we’re at.”

There isn’t a player on the roster that was responsible for the organization’s entire playoff drought — Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin are the only ones who have even been around since 2008 — but there isn’t a player who hasn’t felt the weight of it.

In recent years, the Air Canada Centre has become a tough place for the Leafs to play.

Frustrated fans have been quick to boo and one even tossed waffles on the ice in protest. When things went wrong, the crowd (successfully) chanted for the firing of former coach Ron Wilson and showed its support for the Blue Jays.

“I’ve been here for some games where I felt their frustration out there; I felt their pain,” said centre Nazem Kadri. “They’ve waited a long time and so have we. It’s not like we enjoyed losing. It’s not like we enjoyed finishing our season in April.

“I think that’s why we all worked so hard to get to this position.”

Added Grabovski: “I feel like finally — finally we make it.”

The last few weeks have been interesting for the players.

They officially clinched a playoff spot in Ottawa with three games still to play in the regular season and then headed directly to Florida for five days. When they finally got back to the city over the weekend, they couldn’t help but notice the growing enthusiasm.

A few have mentioned the distinctive blue and white car flags that have started appearing on the roads and others have spoken of hearing more encouragement than usual while going about their daily lives.

Yet most still don’t seem to know what to expect from the fans once the playoffs actually begin. They just know it’s going to be unique.

“When you perform well and do things in a city like Toronto, it is more special than doing it in a (place like Anaheim),” said winger Joffrey Lupul. “It’s a different feeling having the whole city behind you. Obviously, there’s lots of hockey fans in Anaheim too but it’s not Toronto where everywhere you go the whole city is on board and behind us.

“It feels good to represent them and it’s cool that they have a team now that they can be proud of.”

The story has been one that people around the NHL have followed.

Members of the Leafs management team have been congratulated by their peers and Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos, who was raised just north of Toronto in Markham, Ont., said “it’s good for the league” to have the Maple Leafs back in the post-season.

“I know they’ve been starving for a playoff berth for a long time,” said Stamkos. “Any team that makes the playoffs in this league, especially nowadays, deserves it and has done a lot of good things throughout the year to get themselves in that position.”

Some of the organizational pride that Carlyle has sought to restore will be evident when the series shifts back to Toronto for Game 3 on Monday. You can expect the alumni box to be overflowing.

Longtime captain Mats Sundin told recently that he planned to return to a city that he considers his second home just to experience the feeling of playoff hockey in Toronto again.

“For everybody involved, for ex-players that look on, everybody’s (been) waiting for the team to be in the playoffs,” said Sundin. “It’s such a great time of year to play hockey and to watch hockey. It’s a great opportunity for the team and for the city to get the team back in the playoffs.

“Really the Toronto Maple Leafs should be in the playoffs every year, with the support the team has in the city.”

How do you measure the amount of work that went in to making it happen?

Try 622 regular-season games, 131 players, four general managers and four coaches — not to mention an untold amount of frustration and disappointment along the way.

The clouds started to part soon after the NHL lockout ended in January. Amid modest expectations, the Leafs travelled to the Bell Centre for their season-opening game and came away with a 2-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens.

Afterwards, a fired-up Carlyle proclaimed that no one was going to kick sand in the face of the Leafs organization on his watch.

“The word ‘my’ or ‘I’ is not in this team’s vocabulary,” he said. “What we’ve tried to do is we’ve tried to create an atmosphere that we can be proud of and we’re trying to earn respect back for the organization. We’ve taken that upon ourselves. Every guy in there has the same mandate.

“When you’re the butt of jokes in the hockey world it’s not fun. We take that very seriously.”

Tonight Randy Carlyle will step behind the visitor’s bench at TD Garden and coach the Toronto Maple Leafs in a playoff game.

It’s been a long time coming.

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