I’ve been a hardcore Red Wings fan since the 1992-93 season – back when Tim Cheveldae was manning the crease and Steve Yzerman was a 50-goal scorer – thanks to growing up in the Windsor, ON-area. Being only 7 years old at the time, I was fascinated by the game and watched and took in as much as I could. However, my lasting memory from my first real fan season was Nikolai Borschevsky potting that Game 7 winner that was undoubtedly the greatest goal of his short stint in the NHL and only fueled one of the greatest rivalries of that time: Wings vs. Leafs.
The rivalry’s influence on my malleable young mind made me absolutely despise the Leafs and as my family moved around South-western Ontario and the GTA, I always stayed true to my roots. Eventually the rivalry fizzled thanks to expansion causing the divisions to restructure (no, division matchups against Columbus just don’t have the same fire) and now we’re treated to one regular season game a year, which I feel like the Wings usually lose.
Now I live in spitting distance to the Air Canada Centre and I get to hear all of the Leaf love and I usually find it amusing. My favourite conversation is the Leafs vs. Wings debate in which Leaf fans immediately disqualify four Stanley Cups in 19 straight playoff appearances. For countless years I’ve been making bets with naive Leaf fans who think their team is better than they are and will make the playoffs (five straight payouts, I shouldn’t complain). I’ve always found it safe to be pessimistic when prognosticating any Leaf games and since the Ken Dryden / Pat Quinn era as the Leafs have failed to attract or draft any superstar talent.
That’s why when I look at this Leafs team on paper, I see a bottom-five finish, at best, and another heavily-weighted lottery pick. But this may just be a team that stripped off the dead weight at the deadline (Kris Versteeg, Francois Beauchemin, Tomas Kaberle) and now has the right mixture to band together and get something accomplished. Two months ago, this was a team with too many high-paid defensemen and no scoring prowess. Phil Kessel was under the weight of the lopsided trade that brought him to Toronto and Tomas Kaberle was under the weight of inevitably leaving the team via trade or UFA. Ron Wilson was under fire for how he treated his players and Dion Phaneuf was questioned as the right choice for captain. None of the above contributes towards good team chemistry and becomes evident on the ice.
However, now I see a young team playing with nothing to lose and something to prove. They’re now the third-youngest team in the league with an average age just shy of 26, putting them in friendly territory with Colorado, St. Louis, Edmonton, and Los Angeles. Most importantly of all, they’re getting solid goaltending in rookie James Reimer, something nobody saw coming. Without getting too ahead of ourselves, Reimer has provided the consistent goaltending in front of an average defense that Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson could not. It’s a story we’ve seen before, one season goaltending surges that propel an underdog into the playoffs, surprise the top-seeds and maybe even make it to the finals: Dwayne Roloson did it for the Oilers, Jaroslav Halak did it for the Canadiens, and even Giguere did it for the Ducks.
Now, I sound like I’m drinking the Kool-Aid. Three points back of the free-falling, 8th seed Rangers and a game in hand is certainly plausible in what appears to be a wide-open race for 7th and 8th. Making the playoffs would be a great moment for all of the young Leaf fans that have never seen their team in the postseason (or even vying for a playoff spot) but it would also help provide some identity for the players themselves. The NHL is just a better product when the Leafs aren’t a laughing stock as they often become the rival in no matter what building they are in. A good Leafs team generates heat when visiting the Habs or Sens and adds a far greater element to the game. Could you imagine what a Leafs vs. Bruins playoff matchup would look like this year if the Leafs did, in fact, make it to the postseason?
But as a Wings fan holding onto the rivalry that once was, I hope they lose.