On a night that was supposed to be about honouring the Leafs' past, the big spotlight was on the future.
Leading up to the game, all the focus was on Dion Phaneuf, making his return to Toronto for the first time since being traded to Ottawa in a nine-player trade on February 9. The former captain was expected to have an underwhelming return, with many fans ready to boo him essentially for: (a) being used like Duncan Keith when he is not Duncan Keith; and, (b) being offered an obscene amount of money and accepting said offer, as anyone would.
There was good news with that, at least. Phaneuf did receive boos, but a lot less than probably anticipated. The high point, however, was a video tribute during the first TV timeout of the game. The ensuing standing ovation and heartfelt, tearful response by Phaneuf was a sucker punch straight to the heartstrings. Speaking of sucker punches, Phaneuf followed up his tribute by getting dummied in a fight by trade counterpart Colin Greening. I guess the trade return is already providing some value.
The Senators got on the board first, on a marker from Bobby Ryan. Matt Hunwick was atrocious on this play, which was predictable. Bobby Ryan was on a scoring slump and busted it against Slumpbusters™ Inc.: also predictable.
It was at this point, though, that memories of the past gave way to optimism for the future.
Save the puck! William Nylander's first career goal is an absolute snipe. #NHLFirstshttps://t.co/Pe9qzJyZr3— NHL (@NHL) March 6, 2016
William Nylander tied the game at 1-1 scoring his first career goal on an absolutely beautiful snipe. Better yet, the goal spawned a cool tidbit that will forever be ingrained in random hockey trivia. Brooks Laich assisted young Nylander's first career NHL goal; Laich had previously assisted on father Michael Nylander's last career NHL goal while with the Capitals, against the Atlanta Thrashers on April 5, 2009. I can't guarantee he is the only person in history to assist on a father's last and son's first NHL goal, but if he isn't, you could probably still fit everyone who has in a Smart Car.
The Leafs took a 2-1 lead on a marker from another promising young prospect in Nikita Soshnikov. Sosh's goal can only be described as a snipe worthy of SEAL Team Six. He picked his target, and put the puck through Marc Methot's legs, under Andrew Hammond's arm, and directly at the back of the net.
Our Blog Overlord felt it advisable to put a damper on the momentous occasion, reminding us all that luck is random, moments are fleeting, and we are all going to die some day. Fortunately, I am nothing, if not a man of the people who has my finger on the pulse of public opinion:
@scottcwheeler me, reading ur twitter acct pic.twitter.com/7WSEAmNfwQ— Olli Wokeinen (@50_MissionCap) March 6, 2016
For all the hope and optimism, and the great feelings of the future, however, the Leafs are still the Leafs and the third period was a stark reminder that this is a team not designed to win games. Methot tied it halfway in the third. With 2 minutes left to play, Martin Marincin did something you usually only see happen at the ACC if their basketball tenant scores 100 points: offer up a free pizza. A wide-open Zack Smith tapped in an easy shot for the game winner.
So, there you have it: another loss. Four games for the kids, four one-goal regulation losses. If nothing else, it was a great tank game: the kids scored, the team played respectfully, but they still take home 0 points. Gut-wrenching game loser at the last minute aside, it's hard not to feel good about this game. The team sucks right now, and there are no guarantees- one need only look to Edmonton's perpetual draft lottery rebuild as evidence of that- but at least there is more cause for optimism than there's been in recent years.
Tonight, the Leafs waved goodbye to their captain of the past, but welcomed the future with open arms.