TORONTO — Back in the old days, fans in Sundin and Tucker sweaters used to bring traffic to a stand-still on Yonge St. whenever the Toronto Maple Leafs won a playoff game. They’d literally run up and down the middle of one of Canada’s busiest streets high-fiving strangers in celebration of moving 1/16th of the way closer to the Stanley Cup.
The revelry tends to be a little more confined in these modern times, to bars and living rooms and the giant square outside Scotiabank Arena, which is filled to capacity, rain or shine, whenever the Maple Leafs play.
But still, it resonates.
“I’m kind of learning how much hockey means here in Toronto,” said defenceman Jake Muzzin, who arrived in a Jan. 28 trade from Los Angeles. “Not that it didn’t in my previous team, but it’s another level here for sure with the fans and the city and the support.
“Just seeing whatever that square is over there — like, that’s nuts. Just seeing people, everyone’s got Leafs gear on. I’m learning.”
There is probably nothing that can adequately prepare Muzzin or his teammates for what they might see here on Easter Sunday, should they manage to beat the Boston Bruins and secure the organization’s first series victory in 15 years.
It will be part-civic celebration, part-laying of the ghosts. Insert your resurrection headlines here.
With an incredibly rare 3 p.m. ET start time in the middle of a holiday weekend, the city won’t have its attention on anything else. And those old enough to remember what this sort of thing is like will have had 5,479 days of preparation since Sundin’s Leafs won a Game 7 over Ottawa in 2004.
That’s an epic run of futility for the NHL’s wealthiest franchise and arguably its most well-supported. Only the Florida Panthers have gone longer without winning a series. Boston’s taken 11 best-of-sevens in the meantime, while Ottawa’s won seven.
Even Edmonton has four.
Here in Toronto it’s been a long aimless journey through the desert. The Leafs have rolled out 201 different skaters and 24 goaltenders since last winning a playoff series, everyone from Ben Ondrus to Joey Crabb to Joakim Lindstrom. Mike Babcock is the sixth head coach in that time and Kyle Dubas is the sixth general manager.
It would have been easier and more convenient to wait for Godot.
“I think we’re going in the right direction,” Babcock said Saturday. “I think we’ve been doing that now for three years. … I think we have a chance to build a real good program here, we’ve got to continue to build that program.
“This is all part of that process, right here.”
They have taken clear strides in this series against the Bruins, outshooting (141-135), out-attempting (262-245), outchancing (131-115), outscoring (9-7) and producing a better expected goals rate (10.18-9.11) at even strength through five games.
Ahead of Game 6, the Leafs even had Boston coach Bruce Cassidy questioning whether they had dug their own hole or been forced into a corner.
“Are we not executing to the level we can because of Toronto or because we’re not focused?” said Cassidy.
The chance to eliminate the Bruins on Sunday is one the Leafs don’t want to pass up. That would save them from travelling back for a Game 7 at TD Garden for the third time in seven years, while buying a couple days of rest before Round 2 opens against Columbus.
“We know the formula for us to win tomorrow. We know that,” said Babcock. “Now we’ve got to do it.”
“Well you don’t sit back, that’s for sure,” said Muzzin. “You go after it. We have to go out there and play our game and use the home ice tomorrow as our advantage.”
There would be a little built-in symbolism if they finally got over the hump against a Bruins team that has had their number. That’s how they’re looking at it.
“Hopefully that happens,” said Jake Gardiner, a veteran of both Game 7 losses in Boston. “I’m sure it’ll feel good.”
The playoffs are where moments happen that instantly become part of a city’s institutional memory. Especially when the games stretch into May. To this day, Wendel Clark still gets asked to autograph VHS copies of “The Passion Returns,” a movie documenting Toronto’s 1993 run that fell five wins short of a championship.
The Toronto players are keeping a low profile these days — ordering dinner on Uber Eats, rather than venturing out to restaurants — but they’re all cognizant of the growing excitement around them after seeing shots from Maple Leaf Square flicker across social media feeds.
“We’re so fortunate to play in a market like this,” said Auston Matthews, the Game 5 hero. “When you see stuff like that you can’t help but smile because this city and these fans are just so passionate about each and every one of the guys on this team.
“It’s truly amazing.”
If they find a way to keep on playing, they haven’t seen anything yet.