Should Canada rally around the Maple Leafs come playoff time?

It’s that time of year again: spring, or a reasonable facsimile, so it’s time for people to make Canada’s worst sports argument that doesn’t directly involve Don Cherry: Should Canada Unite Behind The Last Canadian NHL Team Left In The Playoffs?

The answer is no, of course not, don’t be silly, and maybe you should get around to cleaning out the garage. If you are stubborn about it the answer is, the whole point of cheering for any of the seven Canadian NHL teams, beyond a slavish desire for periodic despair, is so you can cheer against all the other ones.

But it’s different this year. Ottawa imploded under inept ownership, Montreal has wandered into the sub-mediocre hell of refusing to rebuild, Vancouver has backed into the sub-competent hell of being forced to rebuild, Calgary has wasted a season with talented players, and Edmonton has wasted Connor McDavid. Lotta nihilism out there in Canada, hockey-wise.

That leaves the little fish, and the big one. The Winnipeg Jets have 11-1 odds to win the Stanley Cup and will probably have to go through Minnesota and Nashville, and the Leafs have 14-1 odds and are more likely than ever to have to go through Boston and then probably Tampa.

Let’s start with Winnipeg. The Jets are still the lovable underdogs of hockey in this country, having once lost their team, and having won exactly zero playoff games since the team returned. They play in a comparatively small but rabid rink, in what is technically the smallest Canadian NHL market. Patrik Laine is delightful. They don’t have a Eugene Melnyk to apologize for. Other than a strain of oversensitivity to the Laine vs. Auston Matthews argument, Winnipeg is the closest thing to a unifying third-party team, so if it goes well you are allowed to be happy for the good people of Winnipeg. That’s it.

But the Leafs: Well, this makes things more complicated. No, the country should not cheer for the Leafs if they are the last Canadian team standing, obviously. Canada is tied together by a lot of things, and not liking Toronto is one of them. Sometimes the dislike is even warranted. This city can be overweening and arrogant, self-centred yet strangely dull, and we cater to ourselves, more than anybody else, because who else is there, really?

The Leafs, though, may yet have a chance to make this a (bad) conversation. Tuesday night in Tampa was a tricky one to evaluate: In the first two periods the Leafs looked like the team they think they can be, even without Matthews: They hunted pucks, ate up the neutral zone, made the Lightning look a little jittery, finished plays. James van Riemsdyk continued the hot streak that will probably prompt some team to offer him what will likely become a bad contract, and it was 3-0.

Sure, Victor Hedman scored to make it 3-1, but through two, you could watch these Leafs — who haven’t always looked like a team hungry to make every game count — and think, they can play with anybody.

And then the third period happened. The Lightning got some bounces, and the Leafs made some loose mistakes — bad line change off a sloppy William Nylander zone exit, Ron Hainsey chasing a lost stick, a Morgan Rielly giveaway behind the net — and Tampa jumped them.

Coach Mike Babcock told reporters, “I think if anything, you know you can play with these teams, there’s no issue that way.” Van Riemsdyk said, “Definitely again we’ve showed ourselves how good we can be when we do things the right way.” There were caveats, of course. They pushed, and we didn’t respond. There are things we can clean up. All true.

But this was the first time they clearly outplayed Tampa in their four games, and the Leafs showed both their sides: the team that can have shaky habits, and the team that looks like it has a chance against anybody. These Leafs have a league-best seven shootout wins after a league-worst one last season, and give up 34 shots per game, fourth-worst in hockey. They also have a better record against top-10 teams than either Boston or Tampa. They have moments where this team looks like it has all the gears it needs, and moments where it looks like in the third period of Game 6 against Washington last year, they don’t.

But Toronto could beat Boston — Frederik Andersen, by the way, is 11-1 lifetime against the Bruins — and Tampa, and after that, who knows. This country may be in a position where it has to decide whether to throw itself behind the Toronto Maple Leafs.

And they shouldn’t, because it would be unnatural. And besides — and this is the really obnoxious part — Toronto doesn’t need it, because so much of the country is already behind them. Look at what happens when the Leafs travel to other Canadian arenas, and feel like the home team. Look at the TV ratings they command, which in turn commands the mammoth media attention that helps drive the rest of the country nuts.

This was English Canada’s only NHL franchise until 1967, Ontario’s only NHL franchise until 1992 — and if we’re being honest, 1997 — and one of every three Canadians lives in Ontario. There are more people in the GTA than there are in British Columbia, or all of Atlantic Canada plus the territories. There are about as many people in the GTA as there are in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba combined. And that doesn’t count all the Maple Leafs-loving expats who moved away from the big city to live healthy, happy lives somewhere else, but kept the largely unhappy fandom.

But still, Canada is bigger than Toronto, and we are one nation when a hockey team wears the maple leaf, not the Maple Leaf. Now, I realize that pointing all this out is another reason for the rest of Canada to hate Toronto, and the Leafs. In which case, good. That’s how it is, and how it should be.