TORONTO — The party was already breaking up by the time David Krejci slid the puck into an empty net Monday night. The cups were dry and discarded. The confetti was littering the street. The crowd outside Air Canada Centre, a loud, solid wall of humanity at the start, was now quiet and in clumps at the finish as folks absorbed the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 5-2 loss to the Boston Bruins.
This was half celebration, half realization. The Leafs had ended the longest playoff drought in the NHL, and they were playing their first playoff game at the ACC in nine years and two days – an eternity in the so-called Centre of the Hockey Universe. But as fans and as players, it’s hard to act like you’ve been there before when, well, you haven’t been there before. This was an experience for everybody.
As Toronto buzzed, the Leafs fired 47 shots on goal and hit a couple of posts. But they coughed up pucks and watched them end up in their net. They lost faceoffs because they didn’t cheat as well as the Bruins did. In short, they looked like a young, inexperienced team facing an older, experienced group that won the Stanley Cup just two years ago, and the details made the difference.
“They made less mistakes than we did, and their execution level was above ours,” said Leafs coach Randy Carlyle. “You try to explain to your team that it’s a test. Every game’s a test. Every shift’s a test. This is a war of attrition. There’s skill involved in it, there’s will involved in it and there’s luck involved in it. But you have to earn every one of them, and we didn’t do enough.”
Remember that the Leafs have won the Cup 13 times, second only to the Montreal Canadiens’ 24, but they haven’t won it since 1967. They have the longest Cup drought in the NHL. Piling the longest playoff drought on top of that was torture in a market where hockey matters more than anything else.
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Four Canadian teams had made the Cup final since the Leafs last played a playoff game at the ACC – the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Ottawa Senators and Vancouver Canucks. The Habs had made the Eastern Conference final. The Winnipeg Jets were the Atlanta Thrashers for most of that time, and even that franchise had made the playoffs.
And so the fans came Monday night whether they had tickets or not. They poured down Bay and Yonge in business suits and Leafs sweaters. They streamed out of Union Station with blue-and-white checkered pants and Leafs logos painted on their faces. One man in a full blue bodysuit kept chanting: “LET’S go, TRON-o!”
Those who could afford tickets and were lucky enough to buy them lined up early in the spring sunshine. One man said: “This doesn’t feel like hockey weather.” And, of course, here it didn’t. The fans who made it into the ACC received white souvenir scarves and put them around their necks, which was perfect. The ACC has long been known for its corporate crowd. Now their fans were literally white-collar.
The blue-collar folks stood outside at Maple Leaf Square staring at a gigantic HD screen on the side of the ACC. About 1,500 made their way into the inner circle of barricades by waiting in line for first-come, first-serve tickets. But about how many more were there behind metal railings? “Maybe triple that,” according to a security guard.
Peter Kalamaris, 41, came with his girlfriend, Silvana Presta, 40. He owns a barber shop decked out in Leafs stuff, and he and Presta were decked out in Leafs stuff themselves – blue Mohawk wigs on their heads, “#1 decals” on their cheeks, Leafs jerseys on their backs. Presta had looked into game tickets, but they were $400 apiece in the greens – the nosebleeds – so they snagged some free party tickets outside instead.
“We’ve waited nine years for the Leafs to be in the playoffs,” Kalamaris said. “You can’t beat the atmosphere here. This is awesome.”
John Schienke, 38, brought his sons. Matthew, 10, turned a year old the last time the Leafs played a playoff game at the ACC. Nicholas, 8, was yet to be born. They literally looked up to their favorite, Matt Frattin, on the big screen.
“They’ve got to see the passion,” Schienke said. “This generation needs some passion. This is the best place to find it.”
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The crowd sang “The Hockey Song.” The crowd sang “O Canada.” The crowd chanted “Go Leafs Go!” The crowd cheered as confetti sprayed into the air for the opening faceoff – yes, the opening faceoff.
The crowd was good inside the ACC, too. Bruins winger Milan Lucic said it was the best he had ever seen in Toronto “by far.”
“I think you could totally tell that they’re more than excited that playoff hockey’s back,” Lucic said. “It’s the center of the hockey world, and they deserve playoff hockey, and give them credit for how they cheered here tonight. It looked pretty cool, looking at them with all their fancy white scarves, and it was definitely a fun game to be a part of.”
It was especially fun for the Bruins, who took the crowd out of it by taking a 2-0 lead. The ACC exploded when Jake Gardiner cut it to 2-1 on the power play 13:45 into the second period, but it deflated again when the Bruins extended their lead to 3-1 just 50 seconds later.
“It was very unfortunate that we give up the third goal,” Carlyle said. “It was a 2-1 hockey game, and we had the building going our way and there was a lot of energy and momentum going, and we made a mistake.”
The Bruins tacked on a shorthanded goal in the second. Phil Kessel responded on a power play early in the third, but that was the last of the roars. The Bruins sat back and held on as the balloons drooped around town.
The bad news: The Leafs fell into a 2-1 series deficit. The good news: The fans have to wait only two days for the next playoff game at the ACC this time, not nine years and two days. Game 4 is Wednesday night.
So restock the beer, and refill the confetti machine. Bring a life-sized cutout of the Stanley Cup, like Kalamaris did Monday night.
“This,” he said, “is what we want.”
If the fans are like this now, can you imagine if they ever get it?
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