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The Leafs can lose, but they can't lose like that
An ugly series loss to the Bruins could stall the momentum of a franchise that appeared to be headed in the right direction

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Saturday, April 14, 2018 – Page S2

TORONTO -- After the Boston Bruins scored the first goal in Thursday's game, Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock got his players around the bench. He began making soft, up-and-down hand gestures familiar to anyone who's ever seen a horse calmed.

"I just told them to breathe," Babcock said later.

The worrying thing is that after a year spent building a sophisticated, hockey-game-winning machine, advice this basic worked. Babcock's solution to a malfunctioning team? Turn it off and turn it on again.

In fairness, the Leafs carried on for only an hour or so before they began spitting out error messages, for good this time.

Somewhere in between Brad Marchand trying to see if Leo Komarov has a candy-core head and Nazem Kadri guillotining Tommy Wingels sideways, Toronto completely lost its composure.

The squad got trapped in the worst place a playoff team can wedge itself - too stunned to do anything positive; too frustrated to accept a loss without compounding it. By the end of the third, the Leafs weren't breathing any more. They were hyperventilating.

"It's a long series," defenceman Morgan Rielly - possibly the worst skater on the ice for the evening, including the guys with shovels - said afterward.

"We've got lots of areas we can get better in, things we can improve on."

This "it's a good thing we can try harder" line has become a ubiquitous motivational crutch in sports.

One imagines applying to the space program, fainting during the physical and throwing up in the simulator, yet emerging to say, "There sure are a lot of things I can work on. So, when's the Mars launch? I have to book some vacation during that time."

The Leafs can get a lot better.

The matter at hand, though, is will they? And the further matter - one that is hard to avoid if you watched all of Thursday's West End Massacre - is what happens if they do not?

As the Leafs-Bruins series grew closer, contrary pundits began piling in to pick Toronto to win the series. This wasn't based on any observable advantage, but the idea that the Leafs were younger, better coached and wanted it more.

Boston's strengths suddenly became its faults - too old, too brutal. Mostly, you suspected some people had grown tired of the Bruins. They've been the same team forever and had become boring by virtue of being too familiar.

As it turns out, hockey is like Hollywood. Everyone will tell you they hate all the endless sequels, but they're the movies that make all the money.

This return to extreme underdog status puts the Leafs in a new sort of bind.

Losing manfully to the Bruins was never going to be a problem.

The Leafs have patterned their approach on a hot, new company insulating itself from jittery shareholders.

They've warned people up front that profitability is a long way off. Like Amazon back when it was bleeding money, the concern thrives on faith.

But in order for that to work, the business must show constant growth.

Last year's six-gamer with Washington was a demonstration in both regards. Toronto probably should have won that series, but, hey, they were all young and fun to watch and what are you going to do? The Leafs shareholders agreed on a takeaway: "The kids are all right." The mood got better all season long. A month ago, it was so buoyant that the team's civic investors conceded that the Leafs could and would lose again in the first round.

The implicit agreement - that they would fall to a team that was a) demonstrably better; b) possessed of different attributes than Toronto; and c) that the defeat was not a humiliation.

That plan is starting to come apart. The Leafs can lose, but they can't lose like they did in Game 1 three more times. That undermines the business plan.

This Boston roster is a cunning outfit built for the postseason, but the last time the team's core won a Cup they were young and frisky, like the Leafs are supposed to be now.

(No aspersions here on Marchand. He's so frisky Pfizer should patent his genome and reduce it to pill form.)

Boston hasn't changed much, but also hasn't had a deep run in a good while.

How does Toronto maintain its "it might happen any time now and will happen soon" outlook if it gets its head handed to it here by a team that is - based on results - past its best?

Answer: It's hard. Certainly not impossible, but no longer easy.

Some people will give them a pass. Some people in Toronto always will.

But a comprehensive four- or five-game defeat shatters the current uniformity of opinion. A lot of people will have opinions on what went wrong, what should change and who's to blame.

The off-season suddenly becomes a focus of attention again; how are they getting better? Because, clearly, they will not be good enough. What about this guy? Why not this guy? That gets exhausting fast.

The kids - Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, et al - have had an easier ride than any Leafs stars in team history.

For just a moment, Toronto finally realized that gnawing at its young is not conducive to their healthy development. That's out the window, too.

What's the coach doing, or the GM, or the president?

All of a sudden, a town full of buyers has a few sellers, and the stock starts to go flat. We know how that story ends. We've watched it on repeat for 50 years.

So, yes, the series is young, plenty of hockey to play, yadda yadda yadda. But the Leafs' performance in Game 2 must be better than Game 1.

"We've got a day to solve our problems," Babcock said.

Which, save a few hours, is something the captain of the Titanic may have said.

Associated Graphic

Tomas Plekanec of the Maple Leafs hangs his head while members of the Boston Bruins celebrate a goal during their decisive 5-1 victory over Toronto on Thursday night at the TD Garden.


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