So the hockey gods, having recently accomplished their purposes – to maximize the suffering and anguish of devoted puck afficionados – have tossed away the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans like a sullied and broken plaything. Having breathed the breath of false life into the Leafs’ season, fanning the flames of hope into a five-alarm fire with a dramatic comeback victory over the Flyers and then smashing the aspirations of Leaf fans on the hard rocks of reality, the hockey gods must surely have been profoundly invigorated, as they seem to have a pair of new apples in their malevolent eye: the Ottawa Senators and the Buffalo Sabres.
I watched the third period of the Leaf game last night and laughed out loud at the number of moments taking place in both games that must have been absolutely heart-stopping for the fans of both clubs. The Sabres, for their part, absolutely had to have two points out of their match with the Leafs to keep their playoff dreams alive. In the third period alone, there was a tying goal that counted only after a prolonged video review, an oh-my-God-I-can’t-believe-he stopped-that save by Ryan Miller on Alex Steen and a Kaberle chance that clanked emphatically off the crossbar. In overtime, the Sabres failed to connect on a power play chance and the game was decided in a shootout; Sabres fans must have been reaching for their nitro capsules when Ryan Miller stumbled backing up towards the goal as the first Leaf shooter (Kaberle) approached the net, leading to an easy score. To complicate matters, at the other end of the ice stood Andrew Raycroft – to any other team, an open invitation to collect your two points, but for some inexplicable reason, for the Sabres this year, Raycroft might as well have been the reincarnation of Jacques Plante AND Turk Broda (those of you paying close attention will remember that Raycroft – yes, Andrew Raycroft – actually shut the Sabres out earlier this year). In the end, the Sabres pulled it through and collected the two points they needed, leaving the Sabres – and their fans’ brittle hopes – to live and flower another day, all the better to be crushed more achingly on the morrow.
As wild as all of that must have been for the folk in upstate New York, what must it be like to be a Senators fan these days (full disclosure: as a Leaf fan, I have to admit that there is more than a little schadenfreude for me in considering this question)? You have to remember that in the first month or two of the season, the Senators were on a roll and the usual idiots were tossing around questions in print and on the sportsdesk shows about whether Ottawa would challenge historical standards of greatness in the league like Montreal’s eight-loss season. The awarding of the Cup to the Sens having been deemed a matter of scheduling rather than a question to be decided, the club promptly – and spectacularly – imploded. A goaltending controversy began brewing, then injuries came in rapid succession to Dany Heatly and Daniel Alfredsson. The Senators began losing games in bunches, and to some questionable opponents. Ray Emery, last year’s playoff netminding hero, inexplicably chose to act out and question the authority of team management, showing up late for practice in protest over being relegated to a subordinate role. The losses continued to mount and following back to back shutout losses to divisional rivals Toronto and Boston, coach John Paddock was thrown overboard. With the return of Alfredsson and Heatly, the bleeding slowed somewhat, but the team did not return to its early season form. Ultimately, the team’s lacklustre performance since its torrid start has led to the possibility that Ottawa might miss the playoffs entirely – after having started the season with an incredible 15 wins and only 2 losses.
Last night, needing only a meagre few points to sew up a playoff spot and stop the swoon, the Senators were unable to put a single puck behind future Vezina trophy winner Carey Price, while the Habs – without their captain Saku Koivu and a number of other regulars out as a result of recent injuries, mind you – potted three. Ottawa comes to Toronto on Thursday night and ends its season in Boston. Leaf fans everywhere are rooting for this Mets-ian collapse to continue and for the Best Team that Never Was to completely implode under the weight of its own gravity.
The long and the short of it: if you see someone wandering the street with a faraway look in his eyes, mumbling about November, refusing to eat, shaking uncontrollably and then grasping your arm suddenly and excitedly, asking if it’s Thursday and whether you’ve heard the score – go easy on him, that’s a Senators fan, and he’s not well.