Cheer up, Leafs: You can recover

The Toronto Maple Leafs are understandably crushed after choking away Game 7 of their first-round series with Boston on Monday night, giving up a two-goal lead to the Bruins in the final 90 seconds of regulation before losing in overtime.

Really, this post Tuesday from Toronto forward Joffrey Lupul’s Twitter account says it all:

As does this online listing for a damaged TV for sale in Toronto:

But the Leafs are hardly the first team to collapse under immense pressure. In fact, there has been self-destruction in sports for as long as sports have been around, and many of those who have blown it on the biggest stage have gone on to find redemption in subsequent years — and you don’t have to go that far back to find an example.

So, in honor of you Leafs fans, still drowning your sorrows in Molson and sobbing along to your favorite Nickelback songs a day later, here’s a look at some of the most recent heartwarming tales of choke-job redemption in the world of sports.


The choke: Giants led Philadelphia Eagles 24-3 at halftime at MetLife Stadium on Dec. 19, 2010, and held a 31-10 lead with just more than eight minutes left in the fourth quarter before the wheels completely fell off.

In a span of less than three minutes, Philadelphia had cut the lead to 31-24 with a 65-yard touchdown pass to a tight end and a Michael Vick rushing touchdown made possible by a recovered onside kick. Then with 1:24 to play, a Vick TD pass tied the score at 31-31.

A fourth down with 14 seconds left in the fourth forced the Giants to punt, but rather than kicking out of bounds — and, in all likelihood, sending the game to overtime — Matt Dodge booted it right at DeSean Jackson, who, after muffing the punt, returned it 65 yards as time expired for the winning touchdown.

New York ended up losing the division to the Eagles and missing the playoffs as a result.

The recovery: Giants fans didn’t have to wait long to get over the 2010 flop, because the next year, they won the Super Bowl. Despite finishing with a worse regular-season record (9-7) than in the choke year, New York won the NFC East and then pounded the Falcons and Packers before sneaking past the 49ers to reach the Super Bowl.

There, Ahmad Bradshaw’s touchdown with 1:04 sealed the Giants’ comeback win over the favored Patriots — New York’s second Super Bowl win over New England in five years and fifth in franchise history.


The choke: If there’s a team in the league that can relate to what the Maple Leafs are going through right now, it’s the one that eliminated them Monday night.

In 2010, the Bruins, led by Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, finished third in their division, made the playoffs as the No. 6 seed and handled the third-seeded Buffalo Sabres in the first round.

In the conference semifinals against Philadelphia, Boston continued its hot streak and took a 3-0 series lead. But an overtime loss to the Flyers in Game 4 sent the Bruins into a tailspin, opening the floodgates for three more losses, making them just the third team in NHL history to lose a series after leading 3-0.

Game 7 was probably the most painfully symbolic for the Bruins and their fans. In front of a home crowd, Boston led — you guessed it — 3-0 just 14 minutes in before allowing four unanswered goals in the season-ending loss.

The recovery: The 2011 season saw the Bruins recover in a big way, winning their first Stanley Cup in nearly four decades after a 103-point regular season. It didn’t come easy, though, and Boston had to fight through three seven-game series to do it.

In the first round against the rival Montreal Canadiens, Boston needed three overtime victories to crawl out of an 0-2 hole to win the series. And after a payback sweep of the Flyers in the second round, the Bruins and Lightning went to seven games in the conference finals, with goalie Tim Thomas pitching a shutout in the 1-0 Game 7 win.

Home ice was sweet for Boston in the Stanley Cup Finals, where they outscored Vancouver 17-3 in three games at TD Garden. Then, in Game 7 in Vancouver, the Bruins literally incited a riot — and exorcised their own demons — with a 4-0 win to secure the Cup.


The choke: I’m not so sure anyone necessarily felt sorry for the Miami Heat in 2011, after one of the most un-clutch performances in the history of the NBA Finals. But the meltdown was epic, nonetheless.

The Heat were supposed to make Miami automatic champions in their first season after LeBron James and Chris Bosh took their talents to South Beach, but instead, they combined for a fantastic Finals flop after losing just three games in the first three rounds combined.

At first things looked hot for Miami, which took a 2-1 series lead. But the one loss was a tad unsettling, with the Heat blowing a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter while LeBron went 0 for 4 from the floor down the stretch.

In Miami’s Game 4 loss, LeBron scored just eight points and was virtually invisible again in the fourth quarter, with zero points and just one shot attempt, as Dallas overcame a nine-point deficit to win.

It was more of the same in Game 5, as LeBron went 1 for 4 in the fourth quarter while the Heat’s four-point lead with 4:37 to play turned into a nine-point loss. Down 3-2, and with its confidence totally shot, Miami got steamrolled by Dallas in Game 6, putting the Heat’s championship plans on hold.

The recovery: The wait for the Heat to bounce back was not long (though the NBA lockout may have made it feel that way) and Miami got to have that parade the following year, as LeBron located his clutch gene and the Heat crushed the Thunder 4-1 in the 2012 NBA Finals.

After losing Game 1 in Oklahoma City, the Heat were simply outstanding in sweeping the next four games, and LeBron was every bit as good as advertised, averaging 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists for the series. The scary part for everyone else, though, wasn’t that the Heat won, but rather, that the win — and the changed public perception of LeBron and the team as a whole — took the pressure off for seasons to come.

I guess it’s possible that someone could dethrone the defending champs this year, but it’s not looking likely.


The collapse: In a way that’s not all that different from the Heat, the Yankees are a tough team to sympathize with, unless you’re already a fan. But there’s no arguing that their collapse in the 2004 ALCS was the most magnificent in baseball history.

The Yankees took a 3-0 lead in that series against the cursed rival Boston Red Sox, doing so behind a drubbing of Curt Schilling, a masterful pitching performance by Jon Lieber and a 19-run outburst in Game 3 at Fenway.

A sweep looked like a near certainty in Game 4, when Mariano Rivera entered in the eighth inning to close the door on the Red Sox, but in the bottom of the ninth, a leadoff walk by Kevin Millar, a stolen base by pinch runner Dave Roberts and a single up the middle by Bill Mueller tied the score at 4-4 — giving Rivera just the fourth blown save of his postseason career. (Another one you may recall came in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series.)

Boston went on to win Game 4 in 12 innings. The following night, Rivera blew a second consecutive save in a 14-inning Yankees loss in Game 5. In Game 6 — termed “The Bloody Sock Game” by many — Schilling pitched seven innings in another Red Sox win to force Game 7. In the final game, Boston pounded New York at Yankee Stadium to become the only baseball team to win a series after trailing 3-0.

The kicker for Yankees fans? They also had to watch the Red Sox go on to sweep the Cardinals in the World Series.

The recovery: The Yankees’ redemption didn’t come as quickly or easily as it did for the Heat, Bruins and Giants, but it did come, in 2009, when New York finally won its next World Series, the 27th in franchise history. The 2005-08 seasons saw the Bronx Bombers lose three ALDS series and miss the playoffs altogether once, while also having to suffer through another Red Sox World Series win.

But in ‘09, New York won 103 regular-season games and cruised past the Twins and Angels to reach the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. Hideki Matsui was the star of the 4-2 series victory, going 8-for-13 with three home runs and eight RBI to win MVP honors. Andy Pettitte won two games on the mound, including the Game 6 clincher at home.

For most Yankees fans, that 2009 World Series was enough to put the 2004 collapse behind them, but for others, it took until 2011, when a Boston collapse down the stretch kept them out of the playoffs.

With 24 games left to play that season, the Red Sox held a nine-game lead over the Rays and, according to Nate Silver, had a 99.6 percent chance of reaching the postseason. But a series of stunning incidents, described here by Silver at the New York Times, left Boston on the outside looking in and finally closed the book on the Yankees’ 2004 devastation.


The collapse: Epic meltdowns aren’t limited to team sports. Last year, Australian golfer Adam Scott fell apart in a way few ever have to lose the British Open, one of the PGA’s four major championships.

In a performance that brought back cringe-inducing memories of Jean van de Velde at the 1999 Open Championship, Scott bogeyed the final four holes at Royal Lytham to hand the title to Ernie Els, who certainly didn’t enter the clubhouse expecting to win. Some will argue that Scott’s demise wasn’t as bad as some of golf’s other great collapses, but his slow, painful descent brought back memories of Greg Norman at the 1996 Masters and was just sad to see.

The recovery: In a game that is as much mental as it is physical, it would have been easy for Scott to never get over the blown chance in 2012. In his case, however, it only took nine months. In April of this year, Scott got his first major win when he became the first Aussie to win the Masters.

Scott entered Sunday one shot behind co-leaders Brandt Snedeker and 2009 champion Angel Cabrera. But a round of 3 under, capped by a 20-foot birdie putt on 18, left him tied with Cabrera, and a 12-foot putt on the second playoff hole gave Scott the championship.

Scott surely never will forget his collapse at Royal Lytham, but his new green jacket surely makes it an easier pill to swallow.