“You take the crowd on their mystery ride.” —Bruce Springsteen, “Last Man Standing”
J ake McCabe and Sam Lafferty were not given a choice.
So what if they had just been traded away from the Chicago Blackhawks a few hours ago and flown across the country to meet their new team, road-tripping in Seattle? Who cares if the American players’ minds were still grappling with all the sudden emotional and logistical turmoil packed into the prospect of moving their families and allegiances to Canada?
There was no patience for jetlag, no time to practice.
Like it or not, the new guys were going to the Bruce Springsteen concert at Climate Pledge Arena on Feb. 27 with the rest of the Toronto Maple Leafs, most of whom McCabe and Lafferty had never interacted with outside of a body check.
Call it forced bonding. Or call it one of the many perks of membership to the cushiest yet most criticized hockey club in the league. Call it good timing. Or simply chalk it up to one helluva night off.
“The guys were having a good time. Having a couple of beers with the fellas is nice…. It is a super-tight group, I can already tell. Everyone is super welcoming. I am very grateful for that,” McCabe says. “Bruce, it’s crazy man. That guy just keeps going for three hours straight, it felt like, with guitar after guitar. The guy wasn’t even sweating. Just ripping it up there. It was awesome.
“He’s got a lot of bangers.”
The E Street Band’s catalogue is so rich multiple tunes written by the Boss will be applicable to the Maple Leafs’ postseason, no matter how events unfold on the ice over April, May(?), June(?!).
If a Toronto core that has already been denied in six straight series finally busts its ghosts and sees the light of Round 2, Springsteen’s got: “I’m On Fire,” “The Rising,” We Are Alive,” “Dream Baby Dream,” “Reason to Believe”…
However, if these favoured Maple Leafs drop another first-round series, going 0-for-7 when it matters most, they will set an embarrassing new all-time NHL record for playoff futility. The band will break up and Bruce will still have no problem providing the soundtrack: “I’m Goin’ Down,” “Fade Away,” Lonesome Nights,” Rocky Ground,” “Your Own Worst Enemy”…
Proud, traumatized supporters of Leafs Nation are as familiar with the stats as their own scars: 10 straight losses in potential series-clinching games; three straight series losses despite holding home-ice advantage, a reward for regular-season success; and zero series wins since 2004, the same year everyone fell in love with a friendly new rapper named Kanye West.
To dredge up the Maple Leafs’ past at this point is to keep giving Logan Roy chest compressions. The body is cold, and the jokes are old.
“Not much to say, and I’m sure guys are sick of it, for sure,” says defenceman Mark Giordano, 2022’s trade deadline splash–turned–hometown discount hope. “Every year at this time of year it’s like, wipe everything in the past clean.
“We’re a pretty special group in here — a team that’s been getting around 100 points plus for the past how many years. So, we know it’s all about playoff success now, and I think guys are excited. For a guy not being here that long, I think you can feel the excitement.”
Agreed. But that enthusiasm required months to build.
While the 2022-23 Leafs ultimately finished with a sparkling 50 wins, 111 points, and another top-five seeding leaguewide, they scuffled out the gate. They looked uninspired against too many cellar dwellers. Something was a hair off with their Hart Trophy winner, Auston Matthews. And their bottom six looked incomplete and out of sync. An ugly October road trip to California wrapped with a four-game losing skid.
Since that dip, general manager Kyle Dubas has completed eight trades, adjusting on the fly to bolster his roster’s depth, versatility, and competitiveness to levels unseen in these parts.
McCabe has combined with T.J. Brodie to form a shot-blocking, odd-man-rush-busting shutdown duo. Lafferty and former Blue Noel Acciari have injected pace and persistence further down the bench. And trade deadline prize Ryan O’Reilly, he of Conn Smythe and Selke trophy fame, provided a conscience and confidence overnight.
The Leafs haven’t lost more than twice consecutively in five-and-a-half months, and their consistency and structure have snatched opponents’ attention.
“There’s just more layers,” Montreal coach Martin St. Louis says of the old rival. “The horses are still the same, and they can hurt you in so many ways.”
“Collectively, they’ve all bought in,” observes Winnipeg coach Rick Bowness. “It’s just harder to get the Grade-A chances against them. That means a whole five-man unit out there working together, and they don’t give you a lot of room.”
Adds Ottawa coach D.J. Smith: “They play the right way. They’re well coached. Their focus is clear…. They’re not gonna cheat. They’re not giving you freebies.
“They’re as good as anyone in the league. They’re one of the six, seven, eight teams you’d say have a chance to win it all — and they’re built for that. They’re fairly healthy. Obviously, Matthews is going all out right now; he’s scoring, he’s working, he’s checking. Their D corps is loaded.”
After regaining its footing in November, Toronto withstood a string of first-half injuries to its blueline without skipping a beat. Matthews is rounding into beast mode again. Star wingers Mitch Marner (99 points) and William Nylander (40 goals) are hot off their best individual campaigns to date. Ditto No. 1 goalie Ilya Samsonov (27-10-5, .919), who is rested and ready.
The Maple Leafs rounded out April with a four-game win streak, gave ample nights off to their most important skaters, and recruited the intriguing Matthew Knies fresh off an NCAA championship game.
“I just really like how our group’s come together since the trade deadline,” coach Sheldon Keefe says. “When I see the way the group interacts with one another off the ice and in the room, on the road… and then just seeing them come together on the ice, there’s a real good feeling about the group that says a lot about the character of the guys who have been here to accept the new guys.
“You can see the guys really coming together. And the energy of the group and the connectivity and cohesion is really good.”
Meanwhile, in Tampa, the three-time Eastern Conference champions finally look gettable after all those do-or-die miles. Subtract Ryan McDonagh, Ondrej Palat, and Jan Rutta from the Lightning, and Toronto’s lineup is deeper on paper.
Alas, Tampa does have the edge when it comes to coaching experience and goaltending prowess; Jon Cooper and Andrei Vasilevskiy save their best for spring.
Further, the mental weight falls squarely on the home team, as the jobs of Keefe and Dubas are doubtlessly in the balance here. So, too, could be the fate of the core, with Matthews and Nylander eligible to re-sign long-term extensions as soon as July 1.
One simply does not let prime talent of their calibre walk for nothing.
“This is what it comes down to. It’s playoffs, and we’ve got to get past that first round,” Nylander says. “That’s where everyone’s mind is at.”
T hat fun night in Seattle — five days before a slapshot broke one of his guitar-playing fingers — was not Ryan O’Reilly’s first occasion catching Springsteen live.
O’Reilly is a meticulous, methodical sort, a sucker for detail. He loves whenever Springsteen pauses the rockin’ and just talks to the crowd, gives them some personal insight, maybe a narrative even the most loyal haven’t heard before.
New to the Maple Leafs’ particular microscope, O’Reilly understands the burden mounting on the Core Four. “Oh, gosh, yeah. This city is the mecca of hockey, and there is that pressure on them,” O’Reilly says. But, he counters, the superstars’ fate, their legacy, is dependent on everyone who attended that concert. “You really need everyone. If there’s one guy not pulling the weight, that could be the difference. You need everyone in this room, and everyone in this room has a role that is just as important as the other.
“The mindset’s right, for sure.”
Heaps of talent and positive thoughts do not guarantee anything, though. Heck, the Maple Leafs actually outscored the Lightning 24-23 over seven games last May, en route to respect (and misery) in the handshake line.
“The thing about hockey, or any form of athletics, is that there is a massive amount of variance and luck involved in different things that play a huge role in the fortunes of your team each and every year, especially in a playoff series in a low-scoring sport,” Dubas says. “Those things always loom. You can’t control them. It is trying to do every single thing you can in preparation to give yourself the best chance possible knowing that it is going to loom over it in the end. You hope that when the coin flips at certain points in the game, this game and this year is the time that it lands in your favour.”
Wayne Simmonds, a Leaf likely down to his final shot, cuts blunt: “One mistake one way, and you’re going home.”
O’Reilly agrees on the value of luck in a game played with frozen rubber on ice. But he doesn’t fear the bad bounce. He embraces the shot at a good one. “You truly can’t control winning, and that’s the beauty of it. I believe luck is a big part of it. But [good] luck comes from work ethic and doing things the right way. You see that,” says O’Reilly, his finger still bandaged but useful, before launching into a Springsteenesque interlude. “You can do everything right and lose. That’s what’s fun. That’s the challenge. I think every game has a different pulse to it, a different frequency. You have to tap into it. Find your way through it.
“Playoffs, you leave it out there every shift. These split decisions you make every shift could be the difference in the game. The pressure is so much more in playoffs because of that. There’s no casual moments.
“It’s a beautiful thing. It engages you. It engages the viewers. Playoff hockey is one of the most fun things to watch.”
The bunch Dubas keeps tripling down on needs to put on a show as loud and relentless as Springsteen does. To do right by their own talent, they must wow the crowd. History and odds be damned.
“The easiest way to put it is: Hard things are hard. What we are about to do is going to be extremely difficult,” Dubas says. “It is a tough road. We know that. Knowing that is important for our group. We need that. We need to show we can overcome that. We have to push through. That is what is going to lead us to where we really want to go to.”
The Promised Land.
And if the Leafs fall too short, too fast?
Bring on your wrecking ball.