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This is what it’s all about

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You think it’s that moment when you raise your arms in the air in exultation, but it’s not.

High-wire Artist Kane Petersen Performs Tightrope Walk Over Melbourne CBD
High-wire Artist Kane Petersen Performs Tightrope Walk Over Melbourne CBD
Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Do you feel the clawing in your gut? Is your throat closing up in dread? Are your palms sweaty; do your hands shake; is your jaw sore from clenching?

Isn’t this great!

This is what it’s all about. This is what you’ve hoped for. This is what you’ve wished for, dreamed of and demanded. This roiling monster inside you, sapping your attention from reality and making you twitchy and irritable. This is what we’ve all been waiting for.

I know you thought it was that moment when you raise your hands in the air and shout your joy at a win. I know you thought that was what you wanted, but it was really this moment you craved all along. This is well beyond the salt in the caramel. This torment is flooding your brain with all sorts of things that are making your body do things you didn’t ask it to do.

Sit down in October and watch a game. Will the Leafs win? Will the game be fun? Will Auston Matthews score? It’s all just practice. For the team and for you. It feels good when they win; it feels bad when they lose, and it’s like yanking the handle on a slot machine and getting a warm glow or a hot bit of irritation for a few minutes.

This is different.

This is handing your emotions a stick and pointing at the tightrope. Get out there. Get walking. So your legs are shaking, do it anyway.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Detroit Red Wings Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

They aren’t like us.

If they have that feeling of dread or if their legs shake they don’t show it. The tightrope is what they signed up for knowing that to win, to get the really big prize, it would take years of walking, not one game.

Detroit Red Wings v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Even the happiest one among them is facing forward all the time. “Just play,” Mike Babcock likes to say. Like it is that easy. Maybe it is. Maybe for them, all of this is simple and tonight’s game is no different from a random contest in the fall.

Winnipeg Jets v Toronto Maple Leafs

Last year, not even a full year ago, Nikita Zaitsev was in the Gagarin Cup final. I said this about him:

With the goalie pulled in the final minutes, Zaitsev made shot after shot, threading them through legs and bodies, but the puck never made it all the way. He seemed to never leave the ice, as CSKA was down to their best men. The inevitable happened.

I can’t forget that game. He was on his point, playing a more structured offence than the Leafs do, and he has a distinctive skating style when he backs into position, and over and over, he moved back, to the side, forward, and he shot the puck and picked up the pass or his own rebound off a block and did it again. The puck kept coming back to him. He was the man, the point man, the only man who could thread the needle. The inevitable was failure. He never lifted the cup.

Anaheim Ducks v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Last year at this time, Frederik Andersen was halfway out the door in Anaheim. They didn’t need him; they had something better, but when that something better wasn’t better in the playoffs, Andersen stepped in.

Could you do that? If you had a layoff notice in your inbox, are you going to go put out the latest company fire with all you have?

NHL: Boston Bruins at Toronto Maple Leafs Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

This is a whole new year, and Andersen isn’t on his way anywhere but the crease at the ACC.

2016 Memorial Cup - Championship Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

And you know what Marner was doing about a year ago. He knows what the reward for walking the tightrope is, how good it feels. He knows how to get across.

People say that, don’t they, that you have to learn how to succeed. Maybe so. Maybe playoff experience and practice lifting metal cups is what you need, but Zaitsev showed what it takes to play to the most bitter of ends, and sometimes failure is the lesson you need.

Toronto Maple Leafs v St. Louis Blues

Less than a year ago, William Nylander was failing in the playoffs. Not all the time, not every game, but some of the time he wasn’t the man who could score goal after goal and power the team to victory. But in the second last game he played on the Marlies, he scored three goals in a 5-0 win. In the last game, he scored the first goal of the two the Marlies could manage against Hershey to spark their comeback attempt. It wasn’t enough.

Nylander’s points streak stood at 12 games when the Nashville Predators snapped it. He knows the taste of defeat, and he knows what washes it away.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Tampa Bay Lightning
“Remember when we were healthy scratches? Remember those days?”
Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

They know what to do. Losing is so last year.