Until last night, this interpretation of how Leafs fans felt after the 8-0 humiliation in Boston last season was pretty close to encapsulating the depths of despair the club was in.
Brian Burke’s 18-wheeler had already skidded off the cliff. Ron Wilson had been given the long overdue heave-ho and Randy Carlyle had been installed in his place. Three weeks after Carlyle’s appointment, the Leafs were 7-0 down at the end of the second period and Jonas “The Monster” Gustavsson was being lit up like a Christmas tree.
Fast forward one year almost to the day and the Leafs are unrecognisable from the limp, cowering minnows who shivered in the shadow of Milan Lucic. There are moments in hockey games that tell you more about the state of a team than the scoreline and on Saturday night it was defenceman Mark Fraser eyeing up Lucic and planting a shoulder into the forwards chest, followed by James Reimer making a sharp, confident save. Last season, the picture would more likely have been one of Luke Schenn doing his two-handed backward shuffle and watching the Bruins score.
In hockey, state of mind is everything. A month prior to the massacre in Beantown, the normally silent Phil Kessel revealed his contempt for Wilson, telling reporters that “me and Ron don’t really talk… maybe it’s not working out here.” Tomas Kaberle, prior to his departure, was forced to quash rumours that there had been a seismic falling out between him and his coach. And let’s not forget the treatment that was being handed out to Nazem Kadri, who without Wilson is riding a five-game points streak and now ranks 8th in the NHL in that category.
This year, the coach does not come out after bad games and blame the players as quickly as possible. Randy Carlyle is hardly a soft touch, but he has found success through constant communication with his players. Kadri recently described the change of coaching style as “a complete 180” and that with Carlyle “you’re not beating around the bush, sending someone else to preach”. What emerges is the picture of a poisonous atmosphere of tension and mistrust that permeated the Leafs dressing room in its darkest days last year.
This year it is a different story. James Reimer and Joffrey Lupul have both talked about the confidence that the club has, even in the last two weeks when the Leafs hovered only 2 points above 9th place. The points taken against the Bruins was an on-ice demonstration of how the club has changed in the space of a year.
There is, of course, work to be done. The Leafs 0-4 record in the shootout should not be ignored. Jake Gardiner’s smooth skating is often tempered by some poor decisions with the puck and James Van Riemsdyk has gone alarmingly quiet. It could be a blessing that the Leafs will face two of the NHL’s poorest teams over the next few days in the form of the abject Florida Panthers and the slumping Carolina Hurricanes.
But whatever creases still need to be ironed out, one thing is for certain – the Leafs have the players, the confidence and the togetherness to end 9 years of playoff misery. The psychological impact of ending 9 straight games of defeat against the Big Bad Bruins should not be underestimated.