Get excited. Don’t get too excited.
On Wednesday afternoon a white-haired gentleman was giving one of many speeches as the federal government unveiled a plaque recognizing the historical significance of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and one line popped. “History is to the nation as memory is to the individual,” said Richard Alway, the chair of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. “Without it we cannot know ourselves.” Good line.
The modern history of the Leafs is one of love and disappointment. The plaque, fittingly, ends with the last Cup in 1967, and skips over the endless hope poured helplessly into this team in the intervening years. But as the 2018-19 season opens, everything feels different, right? It might be.
“We didn’t come here to just simply be a team that is a contender,” said team president Brendan Shanahan, before a season-opening 3-2 overtime win over the Montreal Canadiens. “And once you become a contender, a legitimate contender, it only gets harder.”
Toronto added John Tavares to a young team that had the league’s seventh-best record. It’s the most anticipated Leafs season in decades, and that means getting excited. And it means not getting too excited. Not yet.
Look, it’s going to be a ride. The Leafs looked confused and flummoxed early against the Habs, and went down 1-0. That’ll happen. They got their first-unit power play out there, too, with Mitch Marner on one wing, Tavares in the middle, and Auston Matthews in Alexander Ovechkin’s office, where he scored Toronto’s first goal.
It looked lethal, and that will happen too. Matthews led the league in five-on-five goals per 60 minutes played last year, and was only 71st among forwards in minutes. Watch out.
And then there is Tavares, who scored Toronto’s second goal, dancing in the slot and picking the top left corner, whereas Matthews had gone top right.
But the Leafs lost too many puck battles; at times it looked like they thought it might be easy. The Habs played with speed and urgency, and Toronto’s turnovers made goaltender Frederik Andersen work. Ron Hainsey on the first pair is a problem.
It was 2-2 headed to the third. The Leafs were outplayed. They rarely cohered. But in overtime, with space to work with, Matthews hopped on and blazed to an open spot and Patrick Marleau found him, and the Leafs escaped with a win. Still, Babcock will get to show this tape and preach old-fashioned hard work until the sun goes down.
One game. The Bruins got smoked in Washington, where the Capitals fans, after nearly a decade of genuine disappointment, sang “We Are The Champions” before the game. Things change.
“The favourites, I’m not quite sure, that just depends on the person, but I do feel like we’re a top-tier team in the NHL,” said third-line, 30-goal-scoring centre Nazem Kadri. “And I think we have great guys in this dressing room to reach the ultimate goal.”
Remember last year’s start? A 7-2 whipping of Winnipeg, 8-5 over the Rangers, six wins in their first seven — “crazy,” as Hyman remembers it. And by season’s end — after coach Mike Babcock harped on them like a precision grindstone all season, after Matthews battled injuries, after Andersen faced the most shots of any goalie in hockey, after Leo Komarov was finally removed from the second line — they were just good enough to blow three one-goal leads in a Game 7. Everything this year is getting ready to master moments like that.
“I think rarely the team that you are to start is the team that you are to finish,” said Hyman, who is entering his third year with the club. “It’s a process, and it’s no different than anything else: it takes a long time to get where you want to go. And you’ve got to enjoy the little steps.”
“The two teams ahead of us (in the division) are excellent teams, and excellent organizations, and have been for years,” said first-year general manager Kyle Dubas. “In the regular season, game in and game out, we have to show we can challenge them there. I spent a lot of my time focusing in our division, and on our division.”
There will be moments where the Leafs crackle in the night, and it will feel like winter lightning. There will be moments, like this one, when they look ordinary.
But every game will be a show, delivered to an massive, starving audience. The rest of Canada will get sicker of the Leafs than it has in generations, even if they’re fun as hell. Every game, by itself — from this one to the end — will mean everything. And each one, taken by itself, won’t necessarily mean anything, too.
After the historical unveiling team president Brendan Shanahan spoke about Nylander and a contract, and was disingenuous and straightforward at the same time. He talked about his old days winning Cups in Detroit, and how everyone made room for other players so they could be great. Of course, it was before the salary cap, and the team was comprised of veterans who had already made their money. Shanahan is executing that classic hockey play: asking players to take less money to have a better chance to win.
But there was truth in there, too.
“What I hope is they can look back on 20 years, 30 years down the road,” said Shanahan, “what’s going to be most important to them is whether or not they maxed out as an individual and as a team, and have championships to look back on and remember forever.”
Don’t get too excited. Get excited. All those memories. History can change.