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The Leafs need to stop competing against themselves

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Saturday, April 21, 2018 – Page S5

TORONTO -- After they'd been pushed out onto the playoff ledge on Thursday, someone pointed out to Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen that teams don't often come back from a 3-1 deficit.

"Well, that's all stats," he said, waving the idea away.

No, it's probabilities, which is a different thing insofar as it tells the future with some reliability.

You can one-shift-at-a-time it all you like, and it still doesn't look any better.

Andersen did not look best pleased at the line of questioning and no wonder. The speculative shot he allowed to float in over his shoulder 30 seconds into the game set the tone. The Leafs would spend the evening doing all the work and getting none of the results.

As opportunities go, Game 3 was gilded. Boston's Patrice Bergeron was a last-minute scratch with an upper-body injury (a term that has become so pliable in the NHL that it could mean anything from bruised ribs to crippling ennui).

"It wasn't like we were doing cartwheels in here," defenceman Ron Hainsey said later about hearing the news.

A better, more confident team would have been. Removing Bergeron from the Boston lineup is like pulling the CPU out of a mainframe. Nothing quite computes without him. This news should have been blood in the water.

Instead, the Leafs went limp when it counted. They were the better team only if you consider the better team the one that skates ineffectually around the perimeter with the puck, as if the purpose of the game is keepaway.

After Brad Marchand - him again - scored the winning goal, he spread his arms and preened for the cameras. Here's guessing that'll be the series snapshot most people recall in a year's time.

Of course, it's not over yet. But it's kind of over.

The few Leafs players who did come out afterward didn't talk so much as mutter inaudibly. You could hear their resolve crumbling.

The only person in the room who still seemed sprightly, on or off the ice, was Mitch Marner.

That kid may not have been particularly gifted with physicality, but he undeniably has something that makes him special. Like certain small people who cannot be gotten down on the ground, he's redoubtable.

Auston Matthews - once again rendered invisible by the Bruins - was not among those who came out to their media licks.

More than any other, this must have been a night Matthews was relieved the Leafs haven't yet decided to stitch the "C" on his sweater. Because once they do, he is compelled to be seen out in public taking the blame when things go wrong.

Regardless of what tradition dictates, deciding to smoulder alone in the back was the wrong choice. It's not Matthews's fault that the Leafs are losing, but it's always smart to get ahead of the narrative by acting as if it is.

He's made a couple of unfamiliar non-hockey missteps in the last week - first the glib, "shit happens" comment after getting gazumped in Game 2, and now this.

If this is part of the learning curve, it's where the line dips down suddenly. Matthews may yet be the franchise's saviour, but he's still in the desert-wandering stage of his career. There's a lot of that sort of realization going around all of a sudden.

After a season of untrammelled delight at how much went right, the Bruins are providing a jarring sense of what still isn't.

Matthews is not resilient or cunning enough to win games on his own. Neither is Andersen a one-man gang. Patrick Marleau's mere presence won't turn a callow roster into a seasoned one.

And the defence, well, they work on a one-to-one ratio - one nifty play to one awful mistake.

The Leafs' struggles are magnified by goings-on elsewhere in the league. Vegas was assembled out of a high-end garage sale and it looks like an honest-to-God team.

Working on roughly the same renovation schedule, Winnipeg is ready to begin showing. Those clubs are beyond the "promising" stage.

There is a broad tendency toward sporting myopia in Toronto.

The Leafs are just another victim of it.

Toronto teams see themselves in competition with other teams in the city, perhaps even moreso than other set-ups in their own league.

How else to explain that once the Blue Jays got good three years ago, everyone else did as well? It's not like the term "rebuild" hadn't worked its way up to Canada yet.

It was instead that no one had been properly incentivized to knuckle down and get it right until someone else had done it first.

For the hockey club, this tick is even more pronounced. At worst, it can become a destructive solipsism.

The 2017-18 Leafs roster spent the year being compared to other recent iterations of themselves. It wasn't much of a bar to get over.

Toronto wasn't quite operating in a vacuum - it did have to play other people - but it was close.

Hence all the hallelujahs when the Leafs finished with the most points in their history, as if that meant something. Winning the regular season is meaningless and they didn't even win it.

At this point, the Leafs must begin shifting to the holistic Sidney Crosby/LeBron James view of competition - that the only season that counts is the postseason.

The Leafs are no longer competing against the dysfunctional team they once were. There are no more moral victories in that regard. Now, they're playing against other people. And a loss is a loss is a loss.

It's probably too late to learn that lesson this year. But they better have figured it out by next April.

Associated Graphic

Boston's Sean Kuraly, is seen battling for the puck with Toronto's Jake Gardiner, left, and Auston Matthews in Game 4 of their playoff series on Thursday, when the Leafs blew a chance to get even with a Bruins team that was missing Patrice Bergeron.


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