By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Feb. 10) – There is no bigger compliment I can offer the Maple Leafs than to say the club reminded me of the Pat Quinn era during its perfect road trip this week.
For those who may not be aware, the Maple Leaf teams of the late-90’s and early-2000’s habitually performed with savvy and confidence away from home. Scrappy and belligerent – led by such fervid competitors as Tie Domi, Gary Roberts, Darcy Tucker, Shayne Corson, Dmitry Yushkevich, Wade Belak and Owen Nolan – the Quinn Leafs were sandpaper tough. Between 1998-99 and 2003-04, the club registered 100 or more points in the regular season on three occasions, the only such accomplishment in franchise history (a 103-point accumulation in 2003-04 remains the team record).
In 1999-2000, Leafs finished atop the Northeast Division – the first time a Toronto club had achieved such standing in 37 years, since the NHL was a six-team league in 1962-63. In the playoffs, Leafs dominated more passive opposition (Ottawa, a prime example, was eliminated by Toronto in four consecutive meetings) and twice advanced to the Stanley Cup semifinals.
Is there a correlation between the Quinn Leafs and the current team coached by Randy Carlyle? Obviously, it is premature to make such an assessment, as Leafs have been among the poorest clubs in the NHL since the lost season of 2004-05. But, a 7-5-0 record at the quarter-mark of this lockout-shortened schedule is somewhat impressive. A 6-1-0 mark on the road is utterly spectacular – again, reminiscent of the Quinn era. The lone fly in the ointment, to this juncture, remains a flaccid, uninspiring effort in five home games, resulting in a 1-4-0 record. Logic would dictate that Leafs will not maintain their torrid clip on the road. At some point – sooner than later – the club will have to step up and perform competently at Air Canada Centre. Otherwise, its terrific early record in foreign rinks won’t count for much.
LEAFS NEED TO SET THE TONE MONDAY NIGHT AGAINST PHILADELPHIA AND BEGIN PERFORMING COMPETENTLY ON HOME ICE. ANOTHER DEBACLE – LIKE THE 7-1 TROUNCING (ABOVE) BY FLYERS ON MAR. 29 OF LAST SEASON – WILL LARGELY OFFSET THE CLUB’S PERFECT ROAD TRIP THIS WEEK. GRAIG ABEL GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
Still, the road sweep of Washington, Winnipeg and Montreal over the span of six nights cannot be understated. Leafs last accomplished the feat Mar. 18-22, 2008 in a three-game conquest of New York Islanders, Buffalo and Ottawa (Leafs won consecutive road matches at Atlanta, Los Angeles and San Jose in January 2011 but lost the trip finale in Phoenix). The last time a Leafs playoff team swept a three-game road trip was Nov. 27-30, 2004 against Atlanta, Ottawa and New York Rangers. It happened in the midst of the club’s best-ever stretch of games – a 14-1-1 outburst under Quinn between Nov. 22 and Dec. 26, 2003, during which the Leafs won eight consecutively.
Some may suggest the Leafs upended frail opposition this week; indeed, none of Winnipeg, Washington or Montreal will likely make the playoffs. Such contention, however, is unfair given that Leafs were wholly predicted to finish between 12th and 14th in the Eastern Conference. Under Carlyle, the club has clearly overachieved in the first quarter of the schedule.
But, Leafs have no hope of continuing the trend without vast improvement on home ice. Philadelphia, always a strong opponent, invades Air Canada Centre on Monday night. Leafs already have a built-in excuse given the age-old theory that the first game at home after an extended road trip is toughest to win. Another languid performance, however, will follow the early season pattern and serve to offset the club’s well-earned feeling of accomplishment this week. Leafs play a critical stretch of games between Mar. 4 and Apr. 4 – 10 of 15 at the Air Canada Centre. Tepid results during that month will severely hamper opportunity to finally end a seven-season playoff drought.
OBSERVATIONS: Brian Burke may no longer be on the scene but he made what is – to this point – the best off-season trade in the NHL. Before being acquired by the Leafs for defenseman Luke Schenn, young forward James van Riemsdyk was best-known for a seven-goal eruption in 11 playoff games with Philadelphia in 2011. He has the same number of goals in 12 outings with the Leafs so far this season – tied for third in the NHL behind Tomas Vanek, Patrick Marleau and Patrick Kane. A 21-goal output in 2010-11 represents a career-high for van Riemsdyk. It was accomplished in 75 games. He should easily surpass that total in the 48-game schedule this year. Though not noted for using his size (6-foot-3, 190 pounds), van Riemsdyk has been relentless around the opposition net, scoring most of his goals from in tight. He has also proven fearless in powerplay situations, planting himself directly in the line of fire to screen rival goalies… Another Leaf that has really stepped up is Tyler Bozak. During the lockout, I was deeply skeptical of Bozak’s future with the Maple Leafs. His contract expires after the current season and there was little to suggest the Leafs would hang onto him – even with the club’s dearth of centre-icemen. Now, he is in the process of earning an extension. For the first time since his rookie season (2009-10) – when he performed effectively between Phil Kessel and Nikolai Kulemin – Bozak is taking charge on the ice; going hard to the net, and generally appearing as if he can prosper with a heavy workload. There is risk that Bozak could wither as the season progresses, given his lack of size (he is more-than-generously listed at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds). But, the shortened schedule could work in his favor. He has four goals and four assists in 12 games… Ironic, isn’t it, that Leafs would finally become truculent after Burke was let go. From the beginning of his four-year term as GM, double-B sought the type of aggression being displayed early this season under Carlyle. The presence of Colton Orr, Mike Brown (when healthy), Frazer McLaren, Mike Kostka and Mark Fraser – none of whom will ever be nominated for the Hart Trophy – has emboldened the entire roster. The latter three were not part of the Burke era in Toronto. Leafs haven’t had as many willing scrappers since the mid-to-late-70’s with Dave (Tiger) Williams, Kurt Walker, Scott Garland and Pat Boutette… Little-known fact: Carlyle and Leafs broadcaster Greg Millen were teammates in Pittsburgh during Carlyle’s best NHL season. In 1980-81, Carlyle won the Norris Trophy with 16 goals and 83 points. Millen made 63 appearances in goal for the Penguins – the most of any season in his 14-year NHL career with Pittsburgh, Hartford, St. Louis, Quebec, Chicago and Detroit. Carlyle was Leafs second-round pick (30th overall) in the 1976 draft and played 94 games with the Blue and White before a regrettable trade to the Penguins for veteran blue-liner Dave Burrows on June 14, 1978. Burrows would have an injury-plagued three-year term with Leafs… Toronto’s 6-0 romp in Montreal Saturday occurred one year to the weekend that Canadiens bombed the Leafs, 5-0, at Air Canada Centre on “Mats Sundin Night.” Leafs franchise scoring leader had his No. 13 banner raised in a pre-game ceremony. His former club then played one of its worst games of the season… Kulemin is trying hard, as usual, but still appears lost most nights. He would benefit from a change of scenery and Leafs might be able to obtain something of value in return from a GM that is sold on his 30-goal outburst two years ago.
FACEBOOK: HOWARD BERGER [THORNHILL ON]