The more you win, the more you stand to lose. I think there’s a country song about it.
Let me tell you a story.
The captain was inconsolable.
“I don’t know if we could have played better,” he said. “We played pretty well, defensively. But we let them come back to tie it, then beat us, so I guess maybe we didn’t play our best.”
No, it wasn’t 27-year-old Leaf captain Dion Phaneuf.
It was the Red Wings’ 27-year-old captain Steve Yzerman.
Twenty years ago Nikolai Borschevsky scored in the seventh game as the Leafs upset Detroit.
It was a devastating, soul-destroying loss. Really, really bad.
The Wings were coming off a 103-point season and led the league in goalscoring. A great team was just beginning to take shape. Detroit had a long history of losing. The franchise was surging.
The Wings smoked the Leafs 7-3 in Toronto to set up Game 7 on home ice. They had a one-goal lead with three minutes to play before Doug Gilmour scored to force overtime.
The Leafs , meanwhile, were on their way to their first of two consecutive final four appearances. Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk were 29 and at their peak. Twenty-six year old Wendel Clark scored 10 post-season goals.
The Leafs were just a bit more experienced, a bit more resolute.
And what of the Red Wings?
Well, they would lose in the first round the next season and fall short for two more seasons before winning the Stanley Cup in 1997.
By then Steve Yzerman was 31. Kingpin defenceman Vladimir Konstantinov was 29. Brendan Shanahan was 28. Sergei Fedorov was 27. The club had a stellar cast of supporting players. It was their time.
I think you see where I’m going here.
The Leafs were the youngest team in this post-season.
The Bruins used a size advantage along the boards and in the face-off circle. In Game 6, Boston started play with the puck 20 more times than the Leafs. In Game 7 it was 25.
That the Leafs got so close, that the defeat was so agonizing speaks to how fiercely the Maple Leafs competed and how quickly their key players matured.
Let me put it another way: it is to their credit that they got far enough to absolutely break your heart.
And it’s to your credit that after a decade of waiting, you cared enough to be crestfallen.
One team wins the Stanley Cup. Everyone else fails. For all but one club it’s the trail covered before the bitter fall that counts most. The more disappointing the loss, the greater the distance traveled.
Look at the Bruins who lost four straight games after winning the first three to fall to Philadelphia in 2010. The next season they won the Cup.
The Leafs are, in a profound way, a far different, far more mature team than they were two weeks ago. They are, to be sure, a playoff team but they remain several vital cogs away from elite status.
This isn’t the end. This is how you start to get good.