The Toronto Maple Leafs are by far the richest franchise in the NHL — and when that’s said, no one for even a minute thinks that’s referring to anything other than financial gains.
Despite their financial might, the Leafs endured seven consecutive campaigns of heartbreak from 2005-06 to 2011-12. In some of those seasons they were in a rebuilding mode, but in others they portrayed themselves as legitimate contenders, only to fall short.
During the 2011-12 campaign, the Maple Leafs were poster children for chokers as they went from having a 28-19-6 record in early February to 35-37-10 by the end of the campaign. It was so bad that minority owner Larry Tanenbaum felt the need to issue an apology.
After that, expectations were low for the Maple Leafs. Despite a strong rookie season and the fact that his poor sophomore campaign had been disrupted by a concussion, there was a belief that Toronto desperately needed to find an alternative for goaltender James Reimer. That led to fierce rumors that Roberto Luongo would be sent to Toronto. At the end of the day, even Luongo was surprised when it didn’t happen.
Instead, Leafs ownership shocked the hockey world by firing GM Brian Burke right before the start of the shortened campaign. It was a move that “floored” and “stunned” Burke and, in retrospect, probably left him dwelling on what might have been.
He might have reaped the rewards of Reimer bouncing back and 2009 first-round pick Nazem Kadri breaking out, all while his major acquisitions, Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf led the way. By the end of the campaign, no one was accusing the Maple Leafs of being an great team, but for the first time since 2004, there would be playoff hockey in Canada’s most populous city.
They were the underdogs going into their first-round series against the Bruins, but they weren’t without hope. Boston had been forced to play six games in nine days to end their season, which led to questions about how much energy they still had.
Although the Bruins took a 3-1 series lead, the Maple Leafs countered with back-to-back victories, the second of which involved Kessel netting the game winner against his former squad. Suddenly, Toronto didn’t just look like a team that could make the playoffs; they could compete in them too.
“We’ve grown as a group,” Phaneuf said, going into Game 7. He was arguing that they weren’t the same team that, as coach Randy Carlyle put it, “self-destructed” in their Game 1 defeat.
And they weren’t…for the first 51 minutes of the deciding contest. Then, it happened. The collapse. The huge, immense collapse. Holding a 4-1 lead, they allowed three unanswered goals in the third period. The resilient Bruins went on to win the game, and the series, 6:05 minutes into the overtime period.
“I don’t know what happened to us,” Kessel remarked.
At the very least, the Leafs’ playoff drought was a thing of the past.
And by very least, we mean very least.