BOSTON – We are forever in search of new reasons to hope.
To believe this year could be different. Better. Maybe, just maybe, much better.
So, when the stubborn/steadfast hockey organization run by the same brass guided by the same philosophy and led by the same core talent that has triggered more quick exits than a sensitive fire alarm asks its fans to trust that this is our year, there must be a fresh angle.
A shiny marketing gloss or branded flavour twist to keep the customers from not calling shenanigans. To keep guzzling a product that hasn’t quenched thirst for 55 years and counting.
Drink Toronto Maple Leafs! Now in Disappointment Zero!
In 2020, Brendan Shanahan, Kyle Dubas & Co. could sell a fresh head coach and the curious advantage of being the only “home” team in a sanitized pandemic playoff bubble. Hey, maybe all that pressure of actual fans in the stands and reporters in the dressing room was holding the athletes back.
In 2021, the spin was the Canadian Division and a guaranteed berth in the Stanley Cup semifinals for the best team north of the 49th, and surely that could only be the wire-to-wire regular-season champs.
In 2022, expectations haven’t so much as lowered as they have been beaten out of Leaf Nation — those would-be believers who have had the football swiped away from their swinging foot so often, they’re simply waiting for the next thud to the ground.
A springtime road trip to Boston ushers back a flood of playoff nightmares. All those nights the going got tough and those big, bad Bruins ghosts danced over the kids’ fragile psyches.
As Mitch Marner, a supreme talent all too familiar with supreme disenchantment, puts it: “Going into their building, it’s gonna be hostile.”
Facing off Tuesday at TD Garden, the Bruins and Leafs are thriving amidst equally excellent campaigns. Identical 41-19-5 records. Same 87 points.
The away team has the better goal differential (plus-42), more dangerous power-play, and a Hart Trophy favourite. The home side has enjoyed more dependable goaltending, has been hotter of late (winners of 14 of its past 17), and dresses a Selke Trophy favourite.
If not a Round 1 preview, Buds-B’s should at least be a fair fight.
But Boston holds the edge in recent history, the psychological upper hand of the big brother.
So, why, loyal Leaf fan, should you trust that this spring could be different? What’s the sell this time, hucksters?
Absolutely, the three other Atlantic Division titans — the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and the Bruins — had themselves spendier, splashier trade deadlines. They all addressed critical needs and look scarier (on paper, at least) as a result.
Yet in Toronto’s first week with Giordano on the blue line, the Maple Leafs have quietly transformed.
“To me, it's no coincidence that three games he’s been here have seen the lowest chances that we've given up,” coach Sheldon Keefe explains. “Part of that is what he does when he's on the ice. But also part of that is just the way everybody is slotted now.”
By adding a poised defenceman who actually places his priority on defending, the Maple Leafs’ blue line is killing more of their opponents’ plays before they develop. They are spending less time hemmed in their D-zone.
To watch Giordano’s poise on the back end is to witness something rarely seen from a guy in Blue and White. He whacks down dump-ins. He boxes out net-front. He snuffs out cycles before they get rolling. He smartly gets his stick and his body in the proper lane. And his crispy exit passes are almost always on the tape.
None of what Giordano has done so far pops up on the stat sheet (he’s still looking for his first point as a Leaf), but it is rippling through the bench. It’s silently contagious in an encouraging way.
“Expectations are really high. He’s a very accomplished player,” Keefe said of Giordano’s arrival.
Norris winner. Captain of every NHL team he’s played for. An undrafted hometown Cinderella fairytal who earned his ice the hard way, via the minors and Russia. One thousand games. Five hundred points. Can improve both special teams.
Keefe knew the resume, watched the reel. But he did not appreciate the nuance until last week. (Same goes here.)
“You just see how many plays he breaks up. And just see how good he has around our net. Anything that comes around our net, he's either boxing out people and eliminating from the play or getting a stick on stuff and putting it out to safety. He’s just been great,” Keefe raves.
“You could even hear some of the players talking amongst themselves about some of the subtle plays he is making, especially on our half of the ice.”
The old guy–young guy pairing of Giordano and Timothy Liljegren has tilted ice significantly: 70 per cent of scoring chances are going the Leafs’ way when they’re on the ice.
“It does help when an older guy is playing with Lily. Just kind of having the composure out there, talking. Letting him know where he is at all times,” Mitch Marner says. “Those two have done a great job.”
Auston Matthews marvels at Giordano’s “unbelievable plays” in the defensive zone.
To Marner, it’s the “overall confidence” of Giordano, whether walking the room or holding the fort in the game’s final minute, that is causing a ripple effect.
Morgan Rielly is taken by the 38-year-old’s presence.
“When you add a guy like that, he just brings an air about him. He’s confident. He knows how to play the game the right way. So, he gets out there and he just plays,” Rielly says.
“It's a calming influence on our group. And for me, to have him out there just enjoying playing hard, being physical, being good defensively — that's big for us.”
Sure, it’s only been three games. The red-hot Bruins in nerve-rattling Boston will be a special beast.
Yet so far, Giordano’s sharp decision-making is trumping any concerns about his footspeed. To a lesser but similar degree, Ilya Lyubushkin’s physicality and responsibility are outweighing his deficiencies too.
Unlike, says, Nick Foligno in 2021, no one cares if these new additions score once.
In the run-up to postseasons past, the Maple Leafs’ defence has never looked so… defensive. (And that’s with Jake Muzzin and Rasmus Sandin still on the mend.)
When it comes to Giordano, you can toss out the intangibles of leadership and character and experience.
“The quality of player he still is,” GM Kyle Dubas says, “is the most exciting part of it for us.”
There is 2022’s new excuse for hope.
He’s old. He’s unflashy. But he fills a void and brings a calm the Maple Leafs have long missed.