TORONTO - Outside the Air Canada Centre on a Monday night, a man all dressed up in costume celebrated with a tinfoil version of the Stanley Cup and yelled something impossible to understand.
And around him, people cheered on the fool.
It is almost that exciting in Toronto right now: People on the streets making noise for the 23rd best team in the National Hockey League.
It is also that pathetic.
This is how low the expectations have become for Leaf fans: We hope like hell the Leafs can finish eighth in a rather weak Eastern Conference. We turn the town upside down with the anticipation of the first playoff game in this building since Tampa Bay was a Stanley Cup champion and Vinny Lecavalier was a significant star.
Never mind that the numbers indicate a minor miracle has to happen for that to occur. Never mind that there’s a new NHL rule indicating that no team pairing Brett Lebda and Mike Komisarek on defence will ever be allowed to enter the playoffs.
This is the odd reality of what has happened in the NHL. There are no races for first place anymore. This is the only sport where no one cares to finish first and no one wants to win the President’s Trophy. But the real race — this year, every year — is for eighth.
And in dropping another home game Monday night — the Leafs’ fourth straight loss to Tampa Bay — the odds become longer and the possibility of the lights coming on in mid-April seem remote.
And the hope is — it’s all Leafs fans have, really — that they might win 10 of their final 12 games and pray that the New York Rangers or the Buffalo Sabres falter and that 90 points will get Toronto into the post-season.
It’s been such a long time between playoff games in Toronto that Leaf fans will accept gruel even though they are paying filet mignon money for their tickets.
They are that starving. They are that deprived. They have a team with Joey Crabb and Tim Brent and Darryl Boyce — which may not be the first line in Wilkes-Barre — and they quiver about the possibilities of April.
Leafs fans are a lot like puppy dogs. You can smack them and they still come back with their tails wagging, their tongues hanging out, panting happily.
It’s noble of them. It doesn’t take much to excite them. It doesn’t take much to placate them.
They couldn’t even muster the nerve to boo last night when they were beaten 6-2 — a Milos Raonic score — on a three-point night from Teddy Purcell and with two goals from Mattias Ritola, whoever they are.
Here is the problem, among many, with the Leafs’ apparent run at the playoffs, which basically is out of time:
James Reimer, who has been the story of this season, the story of this run, the best reason for hope and optimism and excitement and all things Maple Leaf, a kid so earnest you can’t help but cheer for him, is beginning to play like James Reimer.
He was Ed Belfour for a while. That’s great. Now he’s James Reimer and he’s starting to look like the rookie pitcher making his way through the big leagues second time around.
They know what he throws and how to hit him. Everybody now shoots high on him. One goal by Tampa on his catching glove side. One goal on his blocking side.
Tampa people were saying before the game that they now had a book on him. The whole league is sharing that book now. The challenge for Reimer will be to respond to that scouting and cut down on the bad ones he is now giving up.
Because with J-S Giguere not playing hurt and the Leafs not having enough faith to dress Jonas Gustavsson, who is apparently healthy, there is but one option game after game. Reimer has been pretty much pitching every night without any rest — even though Giguere will relieve him Wednesday against Carolina — for as long as the Leafs remain on life support.
Although mercifully, coach Ron Wilson lifted him in the third period against Tampa, where his night was more minor league than major.
There are now 10 games left in this season and the excitement of Saturday night was replaced by the near silence of Monday’s third period. We wonder if the man with the tinfoil Stanley Cup will have the gumption to return when the Leafs are next home — or has time even run out on the dreamers?