|Goaltender James Reimer (34) has proven he is the Leafs goalie of the future|
While Leaf fans all across the province will be praying and wishing for a game seven win in Boston on Monday night, they should be satisfied with what they have seen out of their beloved team, regardless of Mondays outcome.
The Leafs have proven that they belong in the playoffs. They have silenced all the critics who said they are only in the playoffs because of the shortened season, and they have silenced all their critics who said they would be no match for the mighty and mean Boston Bruins, including myself.
Lets take a minute to remember, while they may not be playing like it, these Boston Bruins are very similar to the Boston Bruins who won the Stanley Cup in six games over the Vancouver Canucks just two years ago. They are just as big, just as tough, and just as gritty. Because of this, these Bruins were supposed to walk all over the inexperienced Maple Leafs, and move on to their second round opponent, whoever that may be.
But the Leafs did not allow the Bruins to have it the easy way. As a team who won just two games in regulation over their last 19 meetings in Boston, the Leafs managed to shock the Bruins and win game two at the TD Garden, 4-2, by beating the Bruins at their own game. The Leafs outhit Boston 44-35, physically punishing a team that just would not be bullied during their cup run in 2011. Game two was the game that cemented the Leafs status as a team who deserved to be in the playoffs, something they had not earned in nearly a decade. But knowing Toronto, they would not take be satisfied by going out in five games.
When the series headed to Toronto for games three and four, Ontario was buzzing with energy not seen in a very long time. The atmosphere was incredible, leaving even the non Maple Leaf fans impressed. It seemed as though the Leafs had a chance at taking a 3-1 lead back to Boston, where they would have the chance to finish Boston off in five, and shock the world. Despite the buzz, the Leafs ultimately dropped both games at home, game four hurting the most, following what was one of the best hockey games of the year, capped off by a poor defensive play by Leafs Captain Dion Phaneuf which lead to a David Krejci overtime winning goal.
A team down 3-1 in a series, as a giant underdog, could easily just look toward golf season, breaking bad, or a vacation. But not Toronto. The Leafs fought harder than they had in game four, and shocked Boston again to win game five. Bringing the momentum back to Toronto for game six, the Leafs found a way to get their biggest win in a decade. The series will be decided on Monday, and the Leafs will once again be underdogs, but win or lose, the players, coaches, fans and province, has to be proud with what has emerged during this series. There are three things that stick out the most.
i) Firstly, how can you not begin by praising the one player most responsible for the Leafs playoff success. Goaltender James Reimer has proven during this season, that despite having a few flaws, he is their goaltender of the future, and he is a quality goaltender who can occasionally steal games for the Maple Leafs. Optimius Reim, as they call him, as been especially magnificant this series, stopping 192 of 207 shots faced through six games. He has made a couple spectacular saves, including the miraculous toe save on Patrice Bergeron at point black range. With Reimers confidence growing by the day, the Leafs can feel comfortable and rest easy knowing they finally have a franchise goaltender.
ii) The saying "he has grown right before our eyes" has never been more relevant than it has for Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner. After being a healthy scratch during game one of the series, Gardiner has blossomed into the Leafs most reliable defenseman in just a few games. He has been logging more ice time each game, and was all over the ice in game six. He has also been a big factor on the scoresheet, tallying a goal and four assists in his four games during the playoffs. He has been the Leafs most highly touted prospect for over a year now, and he is starting to show why. His skating ability is dazzling, and his hockey IQ is extremely high. Gardiner and rookie Morgan Reilly could form the NHLs top defensive pair in the league in just a few years.
iii) Many people have argued that the Leafs have not had a chance to rebuild due to the fact that they made their questionable trade for Phil Kessel a few years ago, but if you look into the Leafs roster, you will see they have a bunch of young first rounders on their team. Nazem Kadri, Joffrey Lupul, Phil Kessel and James Van Reimsdyk were all top seven draft picks. Add that to former first rounders Joe Colbourne, and Jake Gardiner, and you have a bunch of young talent to go along with the veteran players; a balance any playoff team would love to get. Kadri showed what he is capable of during the regular season, as has Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, while JVR has begun to show everyone that he is capable of being the teams best player; a player who will be in every battle, crash the net, play two way hockey, and finish his checks. This playoff run has given these youngsters the opportunity to taste the playoffs, and give them invaluable experience for the years to come.
There have been many more pleasant surprises to Leafs fans, including the under-apreciated play of Leafs forward Jay McClement. McClement has been a player willing to battle with anyone, block anyones shot, and has been on the ice in the final minute of almost every period in this series. He has provided the Leafs with depth and physicality, along with a winning mentality.
The Leafs first playoff appearance in nine years has been a great success, regardless of what the scoreboard will read following game seven in Boston. Win or lose, players, fans, coaches, managers, and the city of Toronto has to be proud of their team, because well, they belong.