TORONTO - Chris Jesse proudly put on his Toronto Maple Leafs jersey on Monday, stepped out of his downtown condo building and soaked up the energy that has been building in the hockey-mad city.
It was unlike any spring afternoon he had experienced in the last nine years. Post-season fever has gripped playoff-starved Toronto and Jesse is glad the wait is finally over.
"It's actually been torturous," he said. "It's hard to find teams that I'm actually interested in other than the Leafs in the playoffs. It's been a long time coming and thank God it's here."
The Maple Leafs surprised many hockey observers by nailing down the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference this year. That earned them their first playoff appearance since 2004 and a first-round matchup with the Bruins.
Hundreds of fans decked out in blue and white watched the game Monday night on a big screen outside the Air Canada Centre at Maple Leaf Square. But their early enthusiasm turned to dejection as the Leafs fell 5-2 to the Bruins, and they quickly cleared the square and trudged homeward.
After splitting the first two games in Boston, the Bruins now lead the series 2-1 with Game 4 set for Wednesday at the ACC.
Jesse, an ardent supporter of the Maple Leafs for 20 years, said it was a rather strange feeling to experience the playoff buzz in the city for the first time in almost a decade.
"The first couple years it was a little bit depressing and then after that it was like I almost got used to them not being in the playoffs," he said. "Now that they finally are, it's like a whole different experience all over again."
Fans sporting Leafs jerseys could be spotted at every turn in the city's downtown core in the hours leading up to the game. Other supporters have mounted blue and white flags on their cars.
"Even before we were in the playoff run, that's just Leaf Nation — they're everywhere," said Toronto forward Nazem Kadri. "We've got the best fans in the world and we're expecting to see it tonight."
Head coach Randy Carlyle was impressed by the footage of Toronto fans celebrating there Saturday when the Maple Leafs won Game 2 on the road.
"It's an event obviously," Carlyle said. "The passion that's demonstrated in that video showing our fans are excited and they're rallying and they're using this as a springboard to spring. We've finally got some decent weather and they're outside and they're cheering and it's hockey in spring and a playoff atmosphere. It's great."
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford even proclaimed it "Blue and White Day" and whooped it up with a couple hundred fans at a lunch-hour pep rally at Scotia Plaza, a few blocks from the rink.
The Maple Leafs last won a Stanley Cup in 1967. Their long-suffering fans are just happy that Toronto is back in the playoffs.
"To feel the vibe now, it brings back memories," Jesse said. "It's almost like a whole new hope."
With files from Canadian Press senior sports writer Neil Davidson.