Saturday night's contest between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals was almost the perfect game for Leafs' fans. Confused? Stay with me.
At the beginning of the season Maple Leafs' faithfuls were told by many pundits that their team would finish at the basement of the Eastern Conference. Many fans bit on this prediction and were eagerly anticipating the 2009 Entry Draft in Montreal where they would be able to select a franchise-type player like Victor Hedman or John Tavares. Slogans such as "T for T" (Tank for Tavares) became popular among sects of Leafs Nation.
But when the boys in Blue & White triumphed over the Detroit Red Wings in the season opener, all of that went out the window.
"We can compete with the best teams in the league!" they shouted. "We're gonna make the playoffs for sure!"
Two days later, the real Maple Leafs showed up while being trounced 6-1 on home ice by Montreal.
Throughout the first two months the Leafs have been, if nothing else, consistently inconsistent. The offence has been better than expected, while the defence has been horrendous, much worse than expected.
It was believed the Leafs would lose many games 2-1 and 3-2. The defence, lead by stellar goaltending from Vesa Toskala, would hold them in it, while the offence struggled to produce. This didn't come to fruition early in the season, as the club played to 5-4 wins and 6-4 losses.
But Saturday night against Washington at home (much like the previous Thursday in Ottawa) the club showed it's true colours.
An offence that is capable of producing, but struggles to do so consistently, was bailed out by a stingy defensive core and an impressive goaltending performance.
For Leafs fans, nothing should appear more beautiful.
The fact of the matter remains that this club is not talented enough to make the playoffs, even with a completely healthy lineup. More games will follow like those against Washington and Ottawa. The team will play a close and competitive game, but ultimately come up short in terms of results.
This is why Brian Burke was brought in as general manager. He likes his team to play an entertaining style, even if they lose.
Since the Leafs won't be making the playoffs, they need to be entertaining, but continue to lose. The worst thing for the club at this stage of its development is to get close to a playoff position, but far from a Top 10 draft position.
Fans need to come to the realization that they can cheer for their team as much as they wish (I certainly will be), but at the end of the day, the losses need to be embraced as part of a "grand scheme of things" mindset.
Losses are lessons learned, and points gained towards another franchise player, like Luke Schenn.
Logic tells me the Leafs won't be bad enough to fall into the top two and get a chance at Tavares or Hedman. They will be in the fourth to eighth category, where several good players are available. Among those is Brayden Schenn, younger brother of Luke, and reigning WHL Rookie of the Year.
Count me in the group that hopes the Leafs finish in a position to draft Brayden. He's a smart, two-way forward who can become a dependable second-line centre. Playing with his older brother will probably inspire him to be the best he can be, and that will reciprocate on Luke.
Don't forget that Burke has a thing for brothers (see: Sedins, and Niedermayers) so this isn't completely out of the question.
With Schenn and Niklas Hagman falling to injury tonight, the Leafs are presented with a great opportunity, an excuse to lose. The team will be far from full strength for the next couple of weeks, and will be able to dig themselves a deep enough hole that come February and March (when they decide to kick it up a notch), it won't matter.
The damage will hopefully have been done, and the Leafs will be able to select another player that will help the development of this young team.
So Leafs fans, cheer all you wish, the world expects no less of you. However, when your brave soldiers bow out to more worthy adversaries, keep in mind that it is all for the cause, and you will one day understand and reap the rewards of the long-time suffering.
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