TORONTO -- A few days later, the shock is starting to wear off.
No, it was not just a really bad dream. In fact, the Toronto Maple Leafs did blow a three-goal lead in the third period and a trip to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Boston Bruins, on the verge of blowing a 3-1 series lead of their own, scored two goals in the final two minutes of Game 7 with goalie Tuukka Rask on the bench in favor of an extra skater, then secured their comeback with an overtime goal.
It was a collapse for the ages. The Maple Leafs successfully and shockingly had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, sending a disbelieving fan base into instant mourning.
The city, which had come alive and was partying in the name of their beloved hockey team, took a collective punch to the gut. The Maple Leafs had the Bruins on the ropes and could not deliver the knockout.
With Boston down three veteran defensemen and trailing by two goals with less than two minutes to play in regulation, the Maple Leafs were exposed as being not quite ready to take the next step.
Was it a successful season? Of course it was. Any time you make the playoffs after a nine-year absence, how can it be viewed as anything other than successful?
Goaltender James Reimer believes that to be the case.
"I think we took huge strides this season," Reimer said. "I don't think anybody gave us a chance at the start of the year. I think we were ranked to place 14th in the conference. The coach did a great [job] in terms of putting a plan in place, and everybody bought in. We went to work and had fun. It was a good year; better than most people expected."
However, Reimer said he will not soon forget the team's collapse at the end.
"That was a terrible way to go out," he said. "It was one of the worst losses I have ever had. I couldn't sleep that night. You hope you don't have to go through something like that again.
"I think that happens in all walks of life. You look at all the superhero movies -- they don't just start out being the best. Usually they fall down and then they get back up. The reason for that is it mimics life. I remember my rookie camp when I let in six goals in the second period. It was devastating. It was like, 'What's going on?' Then at main camp I had a good game against Philadelphia and won a shootout game. Often when you look at life terrible things happen, but you learn from it and you get better."
Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said he believes what the team accomplished this season was its first step toward better days ahead, but there is plenty of work to be done before his team can be considered a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
"I think we have taken some steps in the right direction, but we know it's just a starting point," Phaneuf said. "There's lots of room to keep improving and growing as a group. Any time you have a group that is young like ours, the experience we gained this year will really help us. When you don't attain the goal you set out for yourself, then there will be changes. We set a goal at the start of the year to make the playoffs and give ourselves a chance to win the Stanley Cup. We attained the first goal, but fell short on the second."
Coach Randy Carlyle came to training camp with a plan -- a template, as he likes to call it -- and the Maple Leafs players attained success by following it. Last season the Maple Leafs finished 26th in the League standings with a 35-37-10 record and 80 points. They scored 32 fewer non-shootout goals (227) than they allowed (259). This season, playing a more robust defensive style, the Maple Leafs were 26-17-5 for 57 points and finished ninth in the League and fifth in the Eastern Conference. They scored 17 more non-shootout goals than they allowed (145-128).
One major reason the Maple Leafs were better defensively had to do with their penalty killing. Three seasons ago Toronto finished 30th, and the past two seasons they were 28th. Under a full season with Carlyle, the Maple Leafs improved to second in the NHL.
The Maple Leafs also became the NHL's nastiest team, leading the League in fighting majors with 44 in 48 games, 0.92 majors per game. In 2011-12, they had 16 in 82 games, 0.43 per game.
The question now is what the Maple Leafs do to improve on this season. There are a number of key concerns. Forwards Tyler Bozak and Clarke MacArthur can become unrestricted free agents. With the salary cap going down, one or both may have to move to get the money they feel they deserve. Also, there are those who do not believe Bozak, Mikhail Grabovski or Nazem Kadri is a legitimate No. 1 center.
Phaneuf and right wing Phil Kessel will enter next season in the final year of their contracts, so decisions to extend their deals or possibly move them must be considered. Kessel had his best NHL season to date with 20 goals and 52 points in 48 games, then four goals and six points in seven playoff games.
Is Reimer a true No. 1 goalie? Clearly he remains a work in progress, although it is safe to say he gave his team a chance to win most nights. For a player who heard all offseason and during the lockout that he was going to be replaced, then served as a backup the first two games of this season before getting a start at the Pittsburgh Penguins and winning, he did rather well. Reimer is 25 years old and though he needs work in certain areas -- rebounds and puck-handling, for certain -- he is trending in the right direction.
Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis told the media Thursday his club has no untouchable players, and if he has a chance to upgrade his team in any specific area through trades or free-agent signings, he’ll do so.
Carlyle, asked if this season was a success, said, "There were some high points, but also some low points. The lowest point was obviously what happened in [Game 7 against the Bruins]. We can't get too far ahead of ourselves, and I think we'll continue to take that workmanlike attitude and try to sell our players on the fact there are things we'd like to change, and we'll continue to demand change and try to play the game to a higher level more consistently."
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