This isn't how it was supposed to be for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2010-11. Not at all.
It was supposed to be yet another season of mediocrity at best, with the club floundering near the bottom of the conference, out of the playoff running by January, simply playing for pride while trying to avoid handing the Boston Bruins yet another top two overall pick in the draft.
It was supposed to be a season filled with more proof that this team is nowhere close to being a playoff contender.
And the thing is, for a while anyway, that's exactly how this season was going. The Leafs were, well, the Leafs. Heading into the All-Star break in late January, the team had lost six of seven and sat 26th overall in the NHL with a 19-25-5 record-on pace for 72 points at season's end.
It looked bleak. It looked exactly like it was supposed to.
Then over time they traded Kris Versteeg, Francois Beauchemin and Tomas Kaberle for Joffrey Lupul and a brighter future. They watched as both goalies, J.S. Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson, went down with injury and they were forced to call up a 22-year-old rookie who'd never played a minute in the league.
There they sat, 14 points out of a playoff spot, 33 games remaining and their season essentially over. It only got worse when Phil Kessel was picked last in the All-Star Draft. Everyone laughing at the Leafs. Just like it was supposed to be.
And then it all changed.
With a bunch of Toronto Marlies call-ups, a rookie goaltender and a defense missing two of it's key members, they started winning games. And then they kept winning games.
Since that All-Star weekend, the Leafs have gone an impressive 18-7-5, and head into Tuesday night's game-their 80th of the season—still with a shot at a playoff spot.
Lead by that rookie goaltender, a consistent top six and a rejuvenated defense, the Leafs have climbed there way back into the mix. And though they're hanging on by a string, it's better than the noose they're usually hanging by at this point.
For the Leafs to slip into the postseason, they're going to have to win their three remaining games (Washington, New Jersey, Montreal) and hope that Buffalo loses their remaining three, as well as Carolina finishing 1-2-0 or worse.
A long shot, but then again, it was expected to be a long shot before they even played their first game. It's always been a long shot for this club, and yet, there's just something about this season, that whether they actually get in or not, they showed us that they're more than just the same old Leafs.
They threw caution—and expectations—to the wind.
We saw James Reimer transform (yes, pun intended) from being a kid no one knew, to fans chanting his name, dawning Optimus Reim masks. A kid who's won 20 of the 32 games he's played, more than Giguere and Gustavsson combined.
We saw Kessel score 30 goals for the third-straight season—one of only eight players in the league to have done so in the past three years—as well as Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur all have career years as the team's most dangerous line.
We've seen Nazem Kadri get another chance, and this time make the most of it, using hard work rather than just pure skill.
We've watched Luke Schenn become a dominant defenseman physically, while Dion Phaneuf regains his form from his Calgary days. And finally looks like the captain.
So with one week left in the season, one final dash at the eighth seed in the East, the Leafs have offered their fans something they haven't had much of in a while. A chance. It's usually been about the future for this club, but right now, for this one last week, it's about right now. And having a right now shows that there's a bright future ahead.
It's been quite the unexpected second-half charge for the Leafs this season, but when it comes to expectations, one things is clear: this team doesn't do what they're supposed to.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!