TORONTO — I had almost forgotten what playoff hockey looks and sounds and feels like. Then I made the trek Sunday to Air Canada Centre. Game Six. Leafs versus Bruins.
Blue and white flags flapping in the breeze atop cars on the Queen Elizabeth Way. Remember those?
Signs festooning the outside walls of the ACC facing Bay Street that read, “The Passion That Unites Us All.” And outside the rink, in an area exploding with high-rise condos and restaurants known as Maple Leaf Square, was a crowd that most folks expected to push 10,000. Yes, outside.
Remember the Party in the Plaza? All that blue and gold the night Chris Drury tied the Rangers in the final seconds? Maxim Afinogenov’s overtime goal? Same kind of feeling, just like it was in downtown Buffalo a little more than six years ago.
Giant HD screen. Crazy fans. Jerseys and funny costumes everywhere. Of course, beer. Lots of it.
(Memo to LeafsNation: Someone needed to tell the dude in the Leafs jersey wearing the bear suit that a “Bruin” is a bear. Might try a different costume next time).
And, oh, did they have something to scream about whether they were inside or out. Leafs 2, Bruins 1. Game Seven tonight in Boston. Not many signature moments in this building since it opened in 1999. This certainly ranks as one of them.
“It’s a special situation for sure, one of those memories you’ll look back on when this is all over,” said goaltender James Reimer, who had a shutout until the final 25 seconds and had the crowd chanting his name all night. “The fans have been unreal and the reception was unbelievable. The atmosphere was better than anything you could have imagined.”
Left for dead after a crushing overtime defeat here in Game Four when captain Dion Phaneuf foolishly pinched in and the Bruins broke down the ice for the winning goal, the Leafs have won two straight as Reimer has stopped 72 of 74 shots. Phaneuf atoned for that gaffe by breaking a scoreless tie at 1:48 of the third period, darting to the net and tipping home a Nazem Kadri shot.
“It felt good for me to be able to get that one,” Phaneuf said. “With our last game in here, I didn’t feel great about the outcome and obviously my decision. I felt I owed it to the guys and luckily I was able to tip that.”
If the Leafs win tonight, it will be the first time they wiped out a 3-1 deficit since winning four straight over Detroit in the 1942 Stanley Cup final. The noise in the building was deafening and word was the scene outside was crazy Sunday.
Imagine what the Square and what Yonge Street might look like with one more win.
“It gives me goosebumps every time I see video of people in Maple Leaf Square going crazy every time after we score,” Kadri said. “That’s the dedication, the passion that people have for this organization.”
“I love the fact the people that couldn’t get ahold of tickets or didn’t want to spend that kind of money still support our team and show up like that,” added winger Clarke MacArthur, the former Sabre. “It makes you want to go out and play extra hard and do what’s right for those people out there.”
The Leafs haven’t been to the playoffs since 2004 and haven’t won a Cup since 1967, but they used to be postseason regulars. They made it 10 times in 12 years from 1993-2004 and lost in the conference finals four times, including the epic seven-gamer against Wayne Gretzky-led Los Angeles in 1993 and the five-game defeat to the Sabres in 1999.
Say what you want about the Leafs and their fans, especially the ones that like to take over First Niagara Center. But the fact is the NHL is far better when this franchise is relevant.
And the Leafs are now. Thanks to Reimer, there’s no more talk about Roberto Luongo – who actually tweeted “Reims for Sochi” after the game. Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and James van Riemsdyk are top-notch forwards. Phaneuf leads a defense full of young talent, with Jake Gardiner looking like a future stud. Randy Carlyle is an upgrade at coach over Ron Wilson. At GM, Dave Nonis has pushed forward with the plan Brian Burke started.
Thanks to cranky fans and a huge, relentless media corps, this is a tough place to play when times are tough. But it’s a great one on nights like Sunday.
“In the early stages of my tenure here, I found my team was nearly paralyzed at home,” admitted Carlyle. “We’ve changed that dramatically. We wanted a new identity, to be a different type of hockey club and make sure this rink was going to be a tough building to come in.”
“Our fans respect what we’ve done this year and we think that goes for not just our fans too,” Kadri said. “I think that goes for everyone else around the league as well.”
Sure does. No matter what happens tonight, it’s pretty obvious the Leafs aren’t waiting nine years for their next playoff party.