Published January 13, 2015
It's been quite some time since either the Toronto Maple Leafs or New York Islanders have experienced the playoffs. and both teams' return to the postseason was anything but memorable.
Hockey can be cruel that way, especially for fans. One second you're elated the hometown team finally battled its way into the playoffs and you tell yourself that's enough. Then the action begins, and sure enough, pride enters the equation and you realize it does matter how the team you root for performs.
Lowering expectations is one way fans keep themselves insulated from sports- related pain and suffering, but sooner or later we all have to face the facts. Professional athletes, however, don't ever have the luxury of pretending that qualifying for the playoffs is good enough, because they know complacency means death at this time of the year.
On Wednesday night, the Maple Leafs and Islanders ended playoff droughts of nine and six years, respectively, but they wound up as victims of lopsided Game 1 losses. Then, in an instant, the "happy to be here" crowd turns from mellow to tense, making things all the more difficult for the players to dig themselves out of the hole.
Of the two playoff-opening losses, Toronto's 4-1 setback in Boston had to sting a bit more than the Islanders losing 5-0 at Pittsburgh. Although the fourth-seeded Bruins are favored over the Maple Leafs, the perception was Toronto should have a fighting chance in this series, while New York already has been written off against the juggernaut that is this year's top-seeded Penguins' club.
Toronto, however, was facing a Boston team which had lost seven of nine games to close the regular season, but the B's seemed to flip on a switch in the first game of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals and put the Leafs on their heels.
The Maple Leafs scored the game's first goal less than two minutes into the first period, but had no answer when Boston pushed back. The Bruins kept turning the screws, forcing a fifth-seeded Toronto team with little playoff experience on its roster to implode with turnover after turnover.
"I just thought we self-destructed," said Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle. "We know that this is going to take more than an ordinary effort and tonight our effort wasn't anywhere near close enough to put us in a competitive position."
While it's true this series is far from over, things could get ugly if Game 2 turns out to be more of the same for the Leafs. If that happens, the ferocious Toronto media will be waiting with bared teeth to tear apart this roster, starting with favorite target Phil Kessel.
Kessel, of course, was acquired by the Maple Leafs from Boston for a big price prior to the 2009-10 season. Although he's led the Maple Leafs in goals and points in each of his four seasons in Toronto, it's been hard for the soft- spoken winger to live down the fact the Maple Leafs sent two first-round picks and a second-rounder to the Bruins for his services.
The fact Kessel came into this series with just three goals and six assists in 22 career games against Boston, then had one shot on net and zero points in Game 1 isn't going to help the perception that he's not worth what then-GM Brian Burke paid to acquire him.
On the other hand John Tavares, the Islanders' franchise player who is making his first foray into the NHL postseason, will get a free pass, relatively speaking, compared to Kessel. That's not only because his Isles have been sized up by the media as nothing more as cannon fodder for Pittsburgh's big guns, but also because Toronto is a much bigger hockey market than Long Island.
Still, Tavares was just as disappointing as Kessel in his Game 1. The former No. 1 overall pick of the 2009 draft had his first zero-shot, no-points game since March 16, 2011 in the opener against Pittsburgh.
As a whole, the Islanders were smothered by the much-deeper Penguins, who looked like they may not even need Sidney Crosby back from a fractured jaw to make this series a quick one.
Again, the outcome of this series is far from being decided as this was only one loss. But, when everyone is saying your team is overmatched against an opponent and then that powerhouse team goes out and proves those people right in Game 1, that's a difficult situation to be in if you're a young team like the Isles.
Going forward, both the Isles and Maple Leafs have the difficult task of remaining calm while also playing with a higher level of intensity. Those seem to be opposing concepts, but they are well known to experienced teams like the Bruins and Penguins, who have rosters that are simply brimming with postseason experience.
For the Isles and Leafs, there have to be lessons that can be culled from getting trounced in Game 1. Even if they don't bear fruit in this series, perhaps those lessons will take hold next year or another time down the road, when the events of Wednesday night seem like nothing more than a distant memory.