Loss to Capitals marks end of innocence for Leafs fans

Marcus Johansson scored two goals including the winning goal in overtime and the Washington Capitals defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 6.

TORONTO — I’m going to talk to Toronto Maple Leafs fans here, so the rest of you can feel free to skip down to the Marcus Stroman thing or the part where I insult the Ottawa Senators and Vancouver Canucks. Go on, go on … shoo. Nothing to see here.

Thanks.

As for Leafs fans … you do realize that Sunday’s overtime loss to the Washington Capitals and playoff elimination was the end of the innocence, right? That from this point on, it’s only going to be expectations met or disappointment, that the comfortable middle ground of 2016-17 is gone forever. This is the last time a first-round playoff exit will feel good.

Are you ready for that? My guess is you are, because in three seasons this team has gone from the embarrassment of ‘salute-gate’ and a team that was the single most unlikable group of athletes in the history of the city to a team that made it fashionable to once again be a fan without fear of self-incrimination.

Let’s face it: this team has been so bad for so long that it doesn’t even have a bandwagon. Teams that haven’t won a title since 1967 don’t get to have them; what in some cities might be seen as a bandwagon is in this case a new generation of fans.

So, now that we’re feeling good about ourselves, why not channel some of those feelings into bringing the Stanley Cup back to Canada? There are two of our teams left – the Senators and Edmonton Oilers – and from where I stand it’s really hard not to pull for the Oilers and, well, does that ever hurt for a fellow who grew up as a Winnipeg Jets fan. I mean, it gets me right here you know? Thing is, there’s little arrogance to this particular group compared to what we all thought we saw from Wayne Gretzky & Co. True, Connor McDavid is not above the odd whine to the officials but, really, who among us, etc., etc.

As for the Senators? Too much warped history. It’s an odd little franchise that seems slightly amorphous yet annoying at the same time. Or maybe that’s just their fans. Yet, it’s tough not to like the stories being written by Craig Anderson and Clarke MacArthur, and I have a whole lot of time for Erik Karlsson and his foot fractures.

So perhaps I can still be won over by the Senators but for now? It’s drill, baby, drill. Either way it’s a helluva lot more palatable than relying on the loathsome Canucks to carry the flag, no?

Stanley Cup Playoffs on Sportsnet NOW
Ready for playoff hockey? Stream every single game of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs with Sportsnet NOW.

STRO-SHOW

You go, Marcus Stroman. If that was me, I’m doing a lot more than pumping my fist and jumping in the air and pounding my chest after that complete game win over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Now, the necessary follow-up act is for Stroman to either go through an intermediary such as Jose Bautista or go over to Albert Pujols by himself and say: Sorry. That wasn’t about you or the Angels.

That was quite a camera shot at the end of the Toronto Blue Jays‘ 6-2 win over the Angels on Sunday, with Pujols and several of his teammates staring out at the field as Stroman carried on following the Blue Jays’ fifth win of the season. It was like the ghost of Buck Showalter had settled over the place, and folks in southern California are probably wondering what it is about this Stroman kid, who won the most valuable player award for his performance in the World Baseball Classic final at Dodger Stadium, and in the process angered the entire Puerto Rican team with his assortment of expressions, including what my Baseball Central co-host Kevin Barker would refer to as a “shimmy-shake” walking off the mound after one particular inning.

There are a lot of the game’s conventions that are fine by me; a lot of its unwritten rules and nuances and quirks and anachronisms that add to my enjoyment. But when it comes to players being expressive? Have at it, is my feeling …

Plus, I think Stroman gets some slack here after a couple of suspect calls by home plate umpire Ramon De Jesus, who issued a base on balls to Kole Calhoun after determining Stroman had “quick-pitched,” despite the fact he is not required to come to a stop with the bases empty; then granted Martin Maldonado late “time” despite the fact that Maldonado had both feet in the box, his bat cocked and was looking at Stroman when the pitch was delivered. It was an amateurish call and I had a bigger issue with Calhoun’s exaggerated arm raising and Maldonado’s actions than anything Stroman did during or after the game. We all want a faster pace of play, right?

It’s true: Stroman has a sometimes self-destructive part of his personality that makes him get in the way of himself. I’m not certain with his raw stuff he needs to dicker around with cutesy things to throw off a hitter’s timing; or at least I’d like to see him make a little more judicious use of it (and don’t get me started about Roberto Osuna’s copy-catting.) The bigger concern is whether this is just an example of an over-zealous, relatively inexperienced umpire – 32-year-old De Jesus, the first native of the Dominican Republic to umpire in the majors, is in only his second season – perhaps having his ear bent by the Angels or whether in fact it’s something that the Blue Jays will need to monitor. When the Milwaukee Brewers faced Stroman in Toronto, Brewers first base coach Ed Sedar asked first base umpire Marvin Hudson about Stroman’s delivery. It will most likely happen again, and Stroman will need to figure out how much of this is really worth it.

QUIBBLES AND BITS

• The Toronto Raptors bench has been outplayed by the Milwaukee Bucks‘ in their first-round playoff series, which has to come as something of a surprise considering the return of a healthy Kyle Lowry would by extension seem to strengthen the team’s reserves. In fact, Jonas Valanciunas was the only Raptors bench player to score in the team’s 87-76 win in Game 4, with 12 points. The last time an NBA team had only one player score off the bench in the playoffs was May 20, 2015, when J.R. Smith had 28 for the Cleveland Cavaliers in a 97-89 Game 1 win over the Atlanta Hawks.

James Jones and Matthew Dellavedova were the only other players to come off the bench for the Cavs in that game; in comparison, P.J. Tucker (28 minutes), Delon Wright (11 minutes), Cory Joseph (seven minutes) and Patrick Patterson (seven minutes) also saw action for Dwane Casey without scoring.

• Baltimore Orioles rookie Trey Mancini got the Toronto Blue Jays’ attention last week and had eight home runs among his first 15 hits, making him the first MLBer since the Blue Jays’ Carlos Delgado in 1994 to have as many HRs in his first 15 career hits. Delgado’s eighth homer came on his 13th hit off Texas Ranger Rick Reed in the Blue Jays’ 14th game of the season; Delgado didn’t homer again for 35 games;

• Strange scenes in Baltimore on Sunday, when Boston Red Sox pitcher Matt Barnes buzzed Manny Machado in the eight inning of the Red Sox-Orioles game and Machado and Dustin Pedroia ended up in a shouting match in which Pedroia appeared to blame “them” – his pitchers – for throwing at Machado, whose spikes-high slide on Friday sidelined Pedroia for the rest of the series. Machado immediately apologized to Pedroia both at the time of the slide and via text message after the game and Saturday’s game between the two proceeded without incident.

Pedroia called it a “mishandled situation,” after Sunday’s game, but Orioles closer Zach Britton took to Twitter wondering what it said that Pedroia, the Red Sox’s acknowledged leader, couldn’t handle his teammates. Good point.

THE ENDGAME

At some point, the Leafs might have a chance to hear what Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby said about them in Sunday’s post-game interview with Scott Oake of Hockey Night in Canada.

“We knew they were going to be tough,” Holtby said of the Leafs. “But we didn’t know they were going to be this good. They’re going to be a challenge for a lot of years to come.”

Yes, they are and let’s think a bit about what we’ve discovered about the Leafs, beyond the fact that Auston Matthews might end up being McDavid-good, which probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s the other stuff, you know? Although they seemed to get lost at times in the playoffs, nobody can doubt that under-sized forwards William Nylander and Mitch Marner are very good NHL players – or, more precisely, that they can be very good players for Mike Babcock. The same for Nazem Kadri, who continues to blossom under Babcock and defy those who saw the two men as oil and water.

But that was all kind of expected, right? Look what else we found out: the Leafs have a franchise goaltender in Frederik Andersen, a sure-fire first-pair defenceman in Morgan Rielly and maybe a No. 3 in Nikita Zaitsev, along with young, cost-effective depth in the likes of Zach Hyman and Connor Brown and maybe Kasperi Kapanen, too. They also have enough salary cap flexibility that they can make the tough decisions that need to be made on James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak at their own pace. I don’t know if Leafs management thinks this splendid playoff run has moved up the team’s ETA by a year or so; but there’s plenty of evidence to back them up if they want to view it as such. Holtby, for one, would make a good witness to call.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.