TORONTO – They had wanted to do it as much for the city as themselves. Mike Babcock spoke repeatedly about the thousands gathering in Maple Leaf Square each night while trying to plot a way out of his team’s 3-1 series hole against the Boston Bruins.
First they had to win at TD Garden in order to see their fans again. Then they had to come home, soak in the love and do it again.
Only when it came time for Monday’s game they were also playing for those that could no longer watch. The players and staff talked openly about the senseless murder of 10 people on Yonge St., of all places, because in these moments what else can you do? Most had woken up from their pre-game nap and heard the news.
“It’s obviously a tragedy. It’s awful,” said Zach Hyman, a Toronto boy. “Sports don’t really matter in the moment, but I think that afterwards it brings people together. It can unite people. It was great for us to get the win, but I just feel awful for all the families and the victims. Sad.”
Here in the world’s largest hockey city we still gather around the game. They have been packing bars and the streets outside Air Canada Centre throughout this topsy-turvy series with the Bruins. On Sunday, before tragedy arrived in the form of 15 injured to go with the dead when a van mowed innocent people down on the sidewalk, Babcock had said he’d love to go outside and enjoy a beer with the crowd.
On Monday, after a 3-1 victory that was the biggest of his tenure here, he paid respect to the victims for a full two minutes before talking about how the Leafs managed to force a Game 7.
“Change is the new normal in a family’s life forever, whether it be no mom, no dad, no brother, no sister or whatever it may be,” said Babcock. “Obviously, we’re fortunate to live in such a fantastic city with great first responders and the work they’ve done. It’s so important we rally around these people, help out and do everything we can. We have a fantastic city and we can’t let this get in the way of what we’ve got going.
“Tragic, to say the least.”
The people still came out to show their support for Game 6. Amid heightened police presence in the downtown core, the square outside the arena was full. Inside the building, there was a moment of silence before puck drop and a sellout crowd carrying most of O Canada in full throat.
“That’s the great thing about sports, especially hockey in Canada and especially Toronto,” said James van Riemsdyk, an American. “It’s kind of always like a celebration of how lucky we are to have the freedoms that we have, and how you can’t take any of that for granted.”
Then, they played a game. A huge game in the scope of a hockey season and one that moved the Leafs a step closer to turning the page on the ugliest chapter in their history.
There wasn’t much room to be found on the ice. Brad Marchand beat Freddie Andersen through the pads early, but saw the puck roll wide of the post. Then another floating shot was batted to safety by the Leafs goalie.
You couldn’t help but briefly wonder if the Bruins were simply too strong when Jake DeBrusk opened the scoring with a seeing-eye shot at 1:02 of the second period, but William Nylander found a quick response – intercepting a pass between Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy on the forecheck and then cleaning up a rebound.
Boston’s lead lasted all of 35 seconds.
After Hyman had an apparent goal turned back on a goaltender interference review, the Leafs went into a shell. The Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-David Pastrnak line once again morphed into a wrecking crew – pressuring pucks and denying controlled zone exits – until the unexpected happened.
Bergeron tried to ring the puck the long way around the boards in his own zone and saw it met by Ron Hainsey at the point. He threw it to the middle, where Marchand fumbled it, and Mitch Marner ripped a backhand shot off the left post and in. That would be enough for a focused Andersen.
“The big players got to come to play,” Marner had said of what needed to happen in an elimination game. “That’s the thing I’ve noticed.”
The third period was an intense roller-coaster of emotion even though the Leafs played with composure and purpose. They had to weather a Marner penalty for shooting the puck over the glass inside the final five minutes and saw Kasperi Kapanen and Auston Matthews denied on glorious chances before Tomas Plekanec finally hit the empty net.
As it became clear the Leafs were about to move one win away from their first series victory in 14 long years, the old building shook on its foundation.
“They showed how badly they wanted it today, too,” said Connor Brown, from the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke. “That was the loudest I’ve ever heard ‘em in here.”
This is what they’ve been talking about doing since getting beaten by four goals in each of the first two games of the series. Embracing the chance to do something unlikely and great. Only one Leafs team in history has ever come back from 3-1 down.
“We think we’re going to win,” said Babcock. “We’ve thought that all along. We started poorly and crawled our way back. Now, you have the opportunity of a lifetime. This is fun, this is where you want to be. You don’t remember everything in your life, what you do is you remember moments. You want to create those moments. You want to create memories.”
The Leafs can only ever be a small part of helping a hurting city heal. It’s what they’ve been trying to do since before they understood just how much it was needed.