Invariably, they stumbled and when they did they hit the ground on the wrong side of the NHL playoff brackets.
For seven years, one lockout and six regular seasons, the names have abutted each other: Jason Blake, Eric Lindros, Hal Gill, Andrew Raycroft, Viktor Stalberg, Vesa Toskala, Mike Van Ryn, Alex Steen, Bates Battaglia, Jeff Finger
. All were NHL regulars of varying legitimacy. All left Toronto without playing in a single playoff game.
What’s the last thing you remember, they ask people regaining consciousness.
April 20, 2004. The Leafs beat the Ottawa Senators in Game 7 to win their most recent NHL playoff series. The Senators are the departure point, the last stop before an interminable flood that washed away any optimism year after year after year. Seven winters without a single spring.
And now the Leafs are there again, five points out of a playoff spot and at least two seasons in front of Ottawa in front-of-the line developed talent.
Reborn on Jan 1 with the ascension of James Reimer
, the Leafs have been waltzing backwards through their inauspicious past. First Boston, lights out against Toronto. Remember ‘thank you Kessel.’ Wednesday the Leaf played a Stanley Cup contender, on their ice, and gave them all the wanted. Then, thanks to a memorable shootout goal by Nazem Kadri
, they gave them a little bit more.
A few days before, Buffalo. Remember Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller musing how he loves sending the Leafs back down the QEW as losers. The highway stayed the same. Only the bus rides changed. The Leafs have won three in a row.
And now the Senators, stabilized after a dreadful season, still a dozen points behind the Leafs but now 27th in the league.
Five points out of the post-season, the Leafs must beat the Sens, Caps, Devils and Canadiens. They have won five of their last six and look and feel like a playoff team.
As of now, they are not and for this season at least, they are unlikely to be unless the Rangers or Sabres fall from the sky. Next loss seals it and Ottawa is as good a place as any.
In 1899, the South Fork Dam gave way and the city of Johnstown, PA, was leveled. Survivors put markers on the few remaining buildings to show the level of the waters.
Scotiabank Place is the Leafs high-water marker. Whether it can be again will be debated tonight.