TORONTO — Many in these parts figured the pain was over. That the arrival of a couple young cornerstones and a game-tilting free agent would officially turn the page on the famous promise Mike Babcock made the day he was introduced as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Truth is it’s only given way to intermittent bouts of anguish, despair and frustration.
And the playoffs haven’t even started yet.
This is what it’s like around a team with great expectations, in a city aching for a winner. The Leafs in the last few weeks have provided their fanbase with a crash course reminder about how difficult the ascent can be. They’ve stumbled, struggled and occasionally looked lost while taking until Game 78 to clinch a playoff berth in a season where they owned the best start in franchise history through Game 38.
The truest measure of how far they’ve come awaits when they head back to Boston to open Round 1 next week. They are better on paper, have improved their underlying 5-on-5 metrics and will still finish with fewer wins and points than last season. But are they more prepared to handle the Bruins in a best-of-seven?
“Well, it’s hard to tell right now,” said Ron Hainsey, the honest conscience of the dressing room. “We went through a stretch of games for about a week and a half [to] 10 days which were extremely poor and now we’ve come back and fixed some things in our game that have allowed us to play much better for maybe 10 days to two weeks. Play in a way that I think we all could agree has a much better chance of success.
“So that’s much more positive, but the proof will be in the play here coming up.”
It’s a journey that is bound to include some motion sickness — at least for those with a vested emotional interest and no control over the outcome. Yes, Leafs fans will probably soon come to realize that the “pain” of a losing season and the uncertainty of the draft lottery is nothing compared to what they’re dealing with now.
Nearly two decades have passed since the city entered a spring with this much big-game hockey potential, dating back to the Mats Sundin-led teams that twice reached the conference final. But the possibility of the party ending before it truly gets going exists here as well.
In a city populated with fans not known for being even-keeled in November — I’m looking at you, Steve Dangle — that’s a downright frightening proposition once you reach mid-April and beyond.
Especially with a team that includes John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and Morgan Rielly all enjoying career-best years. And looming salary cap issues that will weaken the depth of the roster before next fall.
What’s great about the Stanley Cup Playoffs is that the chase is just as chaotic for the team that lifts the trophy as the 15 who fall short.
Washington started last year’s tournament with Philipp Grubauer in net and dropped two games at home to Columbus. Then it went back to Braden Holtby and would have fallen behind 0-3 were it not for a post in overtime, before rallying to win the series. The Caps trailed Pittsburgh 1-0 in Round 2 and Tampa 3-2 in the Eastern Conference Final — winning Game 7 on the road — before dropping the first game of the Cup Final in Vegas.
No wonder they partied in fountains when it was finally over.
The journey includes obstacles for every winner. Pittsburgh volleyed between Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury in goal while going back-to-back in 2016 and 2017, and Chicago survived two elimination games and played 11 overtime periods en route to its most recent Cup in 2015.
Here in Toronto it’s about baby steps. It will be seen as an accomplishment if the Leafs can win a round for the first time in 15 years. To do it they will have to overcome a strong Boston team that enters the series with a mental edge and they’ll need to find a way through while playing with a blue line weakened by Jake Gardiner’s back injury.
The Leafs are hoping Gardiner will dress for the first time since Feb. 25 when Tampa visits on Thursday night, but there’s no guarantee he’ll be ready to play — or be anywhere close to 100 per cent health — come Game 1 of the playoffs a week from now.
“Can we get Gardiner back? I don’t know for sure, but I’m sure hoping,” Babcock said recently.
The paradox good teams deal with is that life can actually get more difficult when you’re having success. You’ve truly got something to lose if you’re capable of winning.
That’s why a 6-5-3 March felt so rough around here.
When Babcock first met reporters after being named Leafs coach on May 21, 2015, I watched from Tampa while on assignment covering the Eastern Conference Final. Back then, the Lightning were an incredibly deep team trying to win the organization’s first Stanley Cup since 2004.
In other words, they were in a similar spot to where they find themselves today, albeit less scarred from playoff disappointments.
The journey, man. It usually takes longer than you think it’s going to.
“But if you think there’s no pain coming,” Babcock said at his first press conference in Toronto. “There’s pain coming.”
That, and a whole lot more.