Leafs Vulnerable at Home on Saturdays

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Feb. 15) – There is little question the Maple Leafs have improved under Randy Carlyle to this point of the lockout-shortened season, energized by a cadre of young players getting their first stab at regular deployment in the National Hockey League. Composition of the team is largely – and necessarily – different from the lifeless group that imploded in the final-third of last season.

That said, the Leafs are not yet capable of withstanding an effort in which passengers outnumber workers. Such a display Thursday night in Raleigh led to a 3-1 victory for the white-hot Carolina Hurricanes – a margin that flattered the visitors. Even in a truncated schedule, no team will perform to capacity every night and the Leafs were far from optimal in North Carolina. On the immediate horizon is the Ottawa Senators, who come to town Saturday in the absence of their two best players: forward Jason Spezza and defenseman Erik Karlsson, defending recipient of the Norris Trophy.

This should automatically incite a red-flag warning for coaches, players and fans of the Blue and White. With the exception of Monday’s thorough triumph over Philadelphia, Leafs have stumbled badly at the Air Canada Centre – particularly in Saturday-night engagements – with a 2-8 record over 10 matches dating to Dec. 17 of last season. The Ottawa encounter will be preceded by the habitual home-ice ceremony that often appears to have a negative impact on the Leafs. Though enchanting, these functions interrupt the normal flow of activity – from warm-up to dressing room to the ice. While both clubs are subject to the delay, Leafs are recurrently out of whack when the puck is dropped. With the potential for apathy against an injury-plagued rival, it’s easy to recognize the cautionary element of this match. Leafs had best be prepared for a tougher challenge than some might expect.

FOR WHATEVER REASON, THE LEAFS DO NOT USUALLY RESPOND WELL TO PRE-GAME CELEBRATIONS AT THE AIR CANADA CENTRE – PARTICULARLY ON SATURDAY NIGHTS. THE CLUB HAS WON JUST TWO OF ITS PAST 10 SATURDAY HOME GAMES. LEAFS WERE DECIMATED, 5-0, BY MONTREAL AFTER HONORING MATS SUNDIN ON FEB. 11 OF LAST SEASON. SUNDIN AND HIS FAMILY (ABOVE) PARTICIPATED IN A CEREMONIAL FACE-OFF BETWEEN CAPTAIN DION PHANEUF AND EX-LEAF DEFENSEMAN TOMAS KABERLE.

The pre-game affair, nonetheless, should be rather appealing, particularly for older fans of the Blue and White. It will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 Stanley Cup team – second-most proficient in franchise history to the 1950-51 titlist that steamrolled to a 41-16-13 record in 70 games. That club, which ended a throng of five championships in seven seasons, featured such hockey legends as Turk Broda, Max Bentley and Ted Kennedy – the decisive moment provided, legendarily, in overtime of Game 5 at Maple Leaf Gardens by defenseman Bill Barilko, who would soon-after be killed when his small plane went down in the northern-Ontario bush.

The ’63 Toronto club – second in a chain of three consecutive Cup winners guided by GM and coach Punch Imlach – comprised the likes of Dave Keon, Tim Horton, Johnny Bower and Bob Baun. Keon and Bower will be joined in the ceremony by George Armstrong, Dick Duff, Larry Hillman, Red Kelly, John MacMillan, Bob Nevin, Bob Pulford and Eddie Shack – the always-amusing forward who counted the Cup-winning tally in Game 5 against Detroit.

Keon’s presence – only his second organized by the Leafs since an acrimonious departure nearly four decades ago – is compelling. Callously dumped by then-owner Harold Ballard after the 1974-75 season, the player generally acknowledged as the most preeminent in club history has since refused to attend nearly all team-sponsored events. The prevailing assumption is that Keon is still offended by the manner in which his 16-year term with the club ended. That is moderately true. More vexing for Keon is the Maple Leafs’ stubborn refusal to retire the jersey numbers of franchise legends. Instead, the club honors such players by raising a banner at the Air Canada Centre. Jersey numbers remain in circulation.

This measure stands in direct contrast to other pre-expansion teams. Never again, for example, will a member of the Boston Bruins wear No. 4, in deference to the immortal Bobby Orr. Montreal has done away with 17 jersey numerals. Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita are among Chicago legends that have been so honored. No player on any team will again wear No. 99 – removed from circulation the day Wayne Gretzky played his final game nearly 14 years ago. Keon will never fully embrace his legacy here in Toronto until the Leafs adopt a similar custom, and there is no evidence of that happening.

In the meantime, the current Leafs have to know they will not prevail with a middling effort. Deep, talented clubs can occasionally overcome tepid performance, but the Leafs aren’t in that class – particularly without such important players as James Reimer, Joffrey Lupul, Matt Frattin and Carl Gunnarsson. Given the circumstances alluded to in this blog, there is potential for another lame showing on Saturday night. Leafs would be wise to assume the under-manned Senators are poised to take advantage.

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