Thursday, May 09, 2013

A Learning Experience

I'll keep telling myself it's not over. That it's just a 3-game win streak. One game at a time. Hope reigns eternal in Leafland.

But my Leafs are down 3 games to 1 against the Bruins. This isn't actually unexpected. Once the matchups were known, the jokes flew. "I'll enjoy all 3 games" was a popular one. The reality is that the Leafs have had a hard time with Boston for a long time. They're a solid, hard-nosed, suffocating team with great chemistry built from years of playing together. The Leafs are a young team with limited experience that's really only had half a season to get to know each other and their coach.

Still, my guys have played some great hockey, and even with reality in the back of my mind, I want to believe. I sat on my couch with my Clark jersey and Leafs cap on. I reminded myself to breathe time and again. I scared the cats. I'm sure I scared the neighbours. And in the end, I nearly collapsed with Boston's overtime goal. Krejci Temple-of-Doomed my heart out of my chest with his hat trick.

If it had been a blowout, I would have sighed. But this was sudden death overtime. This was an evenly-matched game. This was the Leafs showing great pressure, hitting posts, and Rask somehow stopping them time and again. This was all kinds of anticipation and joy crushed in an instant. Hell, I even thought O'Byrne had knocked the puck off Krejci's stick at the last second. It hurt.

But, like this series, like this whole season, this is a learning experience for my team. Of the whole team, only 9 guys have ever seen the playoffs before. That's some serious inexperience. Carlyle can preach and teach and drill, but until these kids see what happens when they don't listen, they won't learn. This is the school of hard knocks for them.

Kadri's learned that he can't be a fucking superstar if it means he'll give away the puck.

Reimer's learning that any weakness will be exploited, and that he has to see through bodies.

Gardiner is starting to show why he could be a great offensive defenceman with some more seasoning and maturity.

Grabovski's showing that all he's ever wanted is the chance to play in the second season.

Lupul and Kessel are showing great on-ice leadership.

And Phaneuf has been reminded that high-risk plays in playoff overtimes are fucking idiotic.

They're learning. It's apparent every single game. On Friday they get another lesson, and their hardest test yet - how to face elimination, and how to do it in a hostile environment. This will be mentally hard on them. The one-game-at-a-time belief will HAVE to sink in for them to have a chance. They'll have to remember every lesson, and summon every ounce of skill and discipline. And if, by some chance, they find themselves in a game 7? They can't get cocky.

But in the more likely event that I won't be distracted during my Monday night poker tournament, they'll have to take these lessons home with them. When they come back to training camp next season they'll have to remember everything they've learned and be ready to build on it. Carlyle's messages will mean more. They'll have the weight of experience behind them. They'll be prefaced with "remember when you did this in the Boston series?" The roar of the crowd will still be in their hearts, the taste of the playoffs in their mouths. The expectations of Leaf Nation will sit heavier on their shoulders. They'll have war stories between them, bonds made stronger by crushing hits and heartbreaking goals.

And they'll only get better.

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