“This is insane,” Jason Maslakow said to no one in particular, as cowbells clattered and nerves quivered and misery hovered and hockey players skated on that outrageously electric edge between ecstasy and its opposite. “Insane.”
Maslakow is a Leafs fan. The kind of Leafs fan who drives from Ontario to the District for the playoffs. The kind who paints his face with a maple leaf, and shaves the Stanley Cup into the top of the head, and shaves “GO LEAFS” into the back of his head, and dyes both that hair and the hair on his chin different shades of blue. The kind whose still-blue hands will pick up an unlit cigarette, and place it in his mouth, and then kind of happily grimace out into the world, instantly becoming a meme on every screen where the Leafs are a religion. The kind who will offer a thought about that meme — starring himself — in the middle of the agony of overtime hockey.
“Dude, I almost lit my smoke about 20 minutes ago,” Maslakow said late Saturday night. “So that would have been a better picture.”
Why did he almost light it?
“What do you mean why’d I almost light it?” he then asked. “It’s [bleeping] 3-3, for [bleep’s] sake!”
He was right. It was. And the point was a good one. Because overtime hockey makes you want to paint your face blue, and grimace, and chew on unlit cigarettes, and maybe light one, in between gargling giraffe testosterone.
After the Caps lost 4-3 in double overtime, Nicklas Backstrom was asked something about how fourth liners had served as the heroes in two straight overtime games — first Tom Wilson for the Caps and then Kasperi Kapanen for the Leafs.
“It’s fun,” Backstrom said.
“Of course,” Justin Williams agreed. “This is fun, sitting in here in overtime, knowing that you could be the one that ends it. It’s a great feeling.”
Sometimes it doesn’t seem like much fun. Sometimes the feelings aren’t that great. Certainly not when your team loses, but sometimes not even before that, when you’re nearly paralyzed inside the tension, maybe trying to figure out why you care so much about an event with margins so thin. In the split-second before Kapanen’s game winner, both teams had taken 50 shots on goal. Both goalies had stopped 47 of those shots. Both teams had enjoyed five power plays. Both teams had served 12 penalty minutes.
Anyhow, forget all that, because playoff overtime hockey is like jumping on a skateboard and flying down 20 flights of stairs. You will definitely feel alive. And terrified. And miserable. You will have all the adrenaline you want. You will be able to imagine a glorious future if you make it to your destination. And also the opposite.
“My heart can’t take this,” MASN’s Dan Kolko tweeted late Saturday night.
“I had a pinched nerve before this game; now they’re all pinched,” CSN’s Chick Hernandez tweeted.
“Playoff overtime in hockey is really the best,” noted hockey reporter Corey Pronman, “unless you cheer for either of the teams involved.”
This might make me a homer, but I think those overtime sessions on Saturday night flayed apart more intestinal linings in Washington than in Toronto. The Caps have more expectations, and all those bad memories. Five of their last eight playoff games have required extra time. And Washington is now 3-9 in multi-overtime playoff games. Coin flips after 60 minutes shouldn’t become 75 percent losers a little while later.
But anyhow, Maslakow and his Toronto buddies seemed to be experiencing some form of emotion that approximated enjoyment. They had a buddy whose birthday was this weekend, and playoff tickets in Toronto were exponentially more expensive, so why not just come to D.C.? He painted his face and shaved his head “because I love the Leafs,” and he wasn’t attempting to become a rally meme for the fans back home. Still, he didn’t seem to object.
“When I look at my face, what do I see?” he mused. “I see a guy that’s bleeding white and blue. And so what if he’s got a smoke in his mouth?”
So what indeed. He talked almost incessantly to himself during the second overtime, clutching at his phrases the way others might squeeze their arm rests. “C’mon now boys, c’mon now,” he said. “C’mon boys, bury it,” he said. “In there, boys, in there,” he said. “C’mon boys, put one in,” he said. “Here ya go, here ya go,” he said. “Light ’em up boys, I need a smoke,” he said.
And when Caps fans chanted “Let’s Go Caps,” Maslakow was there to lead the “Go Leafs Go” rejoinder.
“My biggest problem with going to a game in Toronto is you don’t get these fans,” he said during one stoppage, gesturing to the partway delirious crowd, which was living on that same current of insanity that presumably propelled the players. “I try to get a ‘Go Leafs Go’ chant going in Toronto, and people look at me like I’ve got three heads. You come here, you get a ‘Go Leafs G’o chant going. Everyone is here for a good time.”
— Jake Russell (@_JakeRussell) April 16, 2017
Again, that’s debatable. For most of the crowd, this night won’t be remembered as a fun one, I don’t think. It will be remembered for two things: overtime heartache, and the accursed sound of 18,506 tiny cowbells. Some people said they were hockey vuvuzelas. Others said they were NHL cicadas. I thought of them like the heartbeat of Tinker Bell, if she were loaded up on HGH and mushrooms. Well, 18,506 Tinker Bells.
“Like a massive hive of annoying wasps,” someone wrote.
“Ear torture,” read another review.
“It sounds like Caps and Leafs are playing inside a slot machine,” as St. Louis writer Brad Lee put it.
Now they are explicitly demanding more cowbell pic.twitter.com/7WIHDU8Nf1
— Dan Steinberg (@dcsportsbog) April 16, 2017
Had the Caps won, the annoying wasps would have been the soundtrack of glorious victory, and a 2-0 series advantage, and a sense that even if the games were uncomfortably close, the top seed remained in control. Caps fans would have activated their performance-enhanced Tinker Bells in a piercing wave of happiness, and they would have felt so very alive.
In the real world, it was mostly quiet as fans filed out. But Maslakow and his friends weren’t quiet. They were screaming, and hugging, and pausing, and then screaming and hugging again. They seemed very much alive. I suppose that’s why you sign up for following this sport.
“How do you feel?” I asked this pulsating ball of Maple Leafdom, the rare human in that building who could feel electric joy coursing through every part of his body.
“How do you think I feel?” he asked. “WHOOOOOOOOOO!“