By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Feb. 6) – From a hockey perspective, the coincidence is almost chilling. Tomorrow night – February 7 – the Maple Leafs and Jets will meet in Winnipeg. Just as they did last February 7.
Could an 18-wheeler be parked outside the MTS Centre?
No fan of the Blue and White needs be reminded of that analogy.
WHERE IT ALL UN-RAVELED FOR THE LEAFS: MTS CENTRE IN WINNIPEG ON FEB. 7, 2012.
One year ago tonight, the Leafs butchered Edmonton, 6-3, at the Air Canada Centre to prolong a timely hot streak. The club chartered to Winnipeg afterward with a nifty mark of 10-4-1 in its previous 15 games. A glance at the Eastern Conference standings* (below) indicates how well-positioned Leafs were to not only battle for their first playoff spot since 2004, but to collar an extra home game in the opening round:
*TEAMS RANKED ABOVE IN RELATION TO .500 MARK AFTER GAMES OF FEB. 6, 2012
Though Leafs had 28 wins and 25 losses to that point in the schedule, their record (including overtime and shoot-out defeats) was 28-19-6 for 62 points in 53 games – or, essentially, nine games over the .500 mark. Leafs were three points clear of Florida for the eighth and final Eastern playoff berth and only two points behind Pittsburgh for fourth spot, which provides home-ice advantage in the opening round. There was no indication whatsoever of the calamity that would take down Ron Wilson within four weeks and send the club spinning out of playoff contention for a seventh consecutive season.
Nor was there a hint of alarm after the 2-1 loss in Winnipeg. Having played at home the previous night, Leafs were sucking air by the third period. Still, they battled gamely until the final buzzer. A day off beckoned before the abbreviated trip would end in Philadelphia. Then, the Canadiens would arrive on Saturday for “Mats Sundin Night” – the Leafs’ former captain, and franchise scoring leader, having his No. 13 banner lifted to the arena girders nearly four years after playing his last game in blue and white.
Despite inspirational words from Sundin in a pre-game tribute, the Leafs failed to show – getting waxed, 5-0, by their storied rival in a thoroughly revolting performance that signaled what lay ahead. All Sundin could do was look on in shame from his perch at ice level. Though it seemed an anomaly, the Montreal rout began a death-spiral from which Leafs could not recover.
The Wilson era ended with a 1-9-1 collapse after the victory over Edmonton a year ago tonight. Randy Carlyle arrived among the ruins – and a mournful confession by GM Brian Burke that his club had “gone over the cliff in an 18-wheeler.” Carlyle suffered more humiliation. Ultimately, the Leafs could win only seven of their final 29 games, as they plummeted to 13th in the Eastern Conference, a mere two lengths ahead of last-place Montreal.
Coincidentally or not, the season’s dividing line was drawn in Winnipeg on Feb. 7, where Leafs will mark the one-year anniversary tomorrow night.
MAPLE LEAFS AND JETS FACE OFF AT THE MTS CENTRE IN WINNIPEG, FEB. 7, 2012.
KESSEL/OVECHKIN CONTRAST: Phil Kessel has now gone 11 games without scoring a goal for the Leafs – the first 10 this season and the finale last April in Montreal. Though an elite shooter, Fast Phil has never been in the direct company of Alexander Ovechkin. Nonetheless, it was intriguing to observe each man during the Leafs 3-2 victory at Washington on Tuesday night.
Ovechkin, with two goals in 10 games (112th in the NHL as of today), muttered in anger whenever coach Adam Oates pulled his line off the ice. He had no jump. The infectious enthusiasm that marked his brief time alongside Sidney Crosby as the best hockey player on Earth has vanished. In less than three years, the Capitals have regressed from Stanley Cup contender to a club that will finish near the NHL basement. The Leafs may not be acres ahead of Washington and Kessel may have difficulty finding the range all season. Unlike Ovechkin, however, No. 81 is still plugging away – undoubtedly baffled by his scoring drought, yet providing energy and speed on every shift.
Kessel has been known to hang his head in a dry spell. Ultimately, he breaks out of it with a flourish (and still may). Ovechkin, conversely, hasn’t been the same since the Russians were obliterated by Team Canada at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. He was a no-show in a tumultuous environment at Rogers Arena that night and we haven’t seen a lot of him since then.
Even if the players had identical contracts today, I would not trade Kessel straight-up for Ovechkin. That’s how far the face of the Capitals has tumbled.
POUTING AND MUTTERING, ALEXANDER OVECHKIN – BEING WATCHED HERE BY DION PHANEUF – WAS A NON-FACTOR FOR THE CAPITALS IN TUESDAY NIGHT’S LOSS TO THE MAPLE LEAFS. PATRICK McDERMOTT GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
Prior to Vancouver, Ovechkin and Crosby appeared to be the most enrapturing hockey rivalry since Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux in the late-1980’s (undoubtedly, the greatest such competition of all time).
Crosby has soldiered on through injury and illness.
Ovechkin has withered beneath his own weight.
How sad for the NHL.
FACEBOOK: HOWARD BERGER [THORNHILL ON]