Say what you want about the schedulemaker: he certainly has a flair for the dramatic.
The Leafs host the Bruins, Thursday night in the most meaningful game Toronto has played since May 14.
Yes, that May 14, the three goals in 10-minutes May 14 Game 7 loss in Boston.
Here is the recipe for the season, Leaf fans. You need both the Leafs and the Bruins to be the teams they seemed destined to be when Nazem Kadri popped home a two-on-one goal to put the Leafs up 4-1 early in the third period of Game 7.
Since then, the Leafs have proven they are not quite as good as they looked in that first round and the Bruins have showed they are much better.
Boston blew away the Rangers in five games in the second round, swept the top-seeded Penguins and fell two goals short in Game 6 of a winner-take all finale. They are staggeringly efficient with a 52-17-6 record this season.
“They don’t really change,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said Wednesday. “They do what they do and they do it as well as anybody in the league.”
The Leafs did change. Eight members of the Leafs squad in Boston that night are gone: Clarke MacArthur, Ryan O’Byrne, John-Michael Liles, Joe Colborne, Matt Frattin, Leo Komarov, Mikhail Grabovski and Ben Scrivens.
The cast of players coming in, Bolland, David Clarkson, Morgan Rielly, Paul Ranger, Troy Bodie, Jonathan Bernier, Mason Raymond is far superior to the list of players that left.
The Leafs should be better. Instead they rocketed to an illusory 10-5 start built largely on the remarkable play of Dave Bolland and Jonathan Bernier. Then Bolland tore up his leg, the Leafs won six straight in January, Bernier went out with a groin injury, Bolland came back at three-quarters speed, the team lost eight straight. Pretty standard really.
That there is a bit of humour in this was helped along by the Leafs 3-2 win over Calgary, Tuesday. Was there any game that was particularly painful, someone asked Tyler Bozak after Wednesday’s optional skate. “They all kind of sucked,” Bozak said.
Sitting out of the playoffs with four games after Boston feels like a remarkable comedown from last season.
It isn’t really.
As galling, as agonizing as Game 7 was, a Leafs’ win would have been one of the great upsets in franchise history. It would have been an acceleration of two or three seasons in the maturation of the team.
What this calls for is some history.
First, the Leafs are on average two years younger per player than the Bruins. Look at Boston’s oldest significant (though not necessarily premier) players compared to the Leafs.
Boston forwards: Iginla 36, Thornton 36, Kelly 33, Campbell 30.
Leaf forwards: McClement 31, Clarkson 30, Lupul 30, Kulemin 27.
Boston Defence: Chara 37, Seidenberg, 32, Boychuk, 30.
Leaf Defence: Gleason 31, Ranger 29, Phaneuf 28.
The unpalatable truth is the Leafs are in radically different stage of the winning arc than are the Bruins.
You can trace the turnaround in Boston’s fortunes back to the 2008-2009 season. That season marked the first time in eight years the Bruins won a playoff round. In four of those seasons they failed to make the playoffs. It was a run of futility not unlike the one the Leafs ended by qualifying for the post season last spring.
The 2008-09 Bruins were led by veterans such as Marc Savard, 31, and 40-year-old Mark Recchi. But look at the age of the players who are now key contributors to the present Bruins team in 2008-09 compared to the key contributors to this year’s Leafs team.
Chara 31, Savard 31, Ryder 28, Wideman 25, Bergeron 23, Krejci 22, Lucic 20.
Phaneuf 28, Bozak 28, Franson 28, Kessel 26, vam Riemsdyk 24, Gardiner 23.
Put this another way. Five of the Leafs top players, Morgan Rielly, Gardiner, Kadri, JVR and Bernier have yet to reach their 26th birthday. Another, Phil Kessel, just missed the cut at 26. The current edition of the Bruins have two prominent 25-year-olds, Lucic and Brad Marchant. That’s it.
If the Leafs aren’t ready yet, they are following the same route charted by the Bruins.
I’m not saying the Leafs will be Stanley Cup contenders in a few years. I am saying that where the Leafs are now is comparable to where the Bruins were before the team became a Stanley Cup contender.
At any rate, a win over the Bruins and its game on. A loss and it looks like game over. For the second time in 11 months, it falls to the Boston Bruins to define the Leafs’ progress.