Leafs Real Test is Thursday

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Mar. 6) – Tonight marks another installment of the Battle of Ontario, as Ottawa Senators invade Air Canada Centre for the second time this season. Ben Scrivens blanked the injury riddled Sens, 3-0, on Feb. 16 and Ottawa handed Leafs a gut-wrenching, 3-2 loss one week later at Scotiabank Place when Colin Greening fired a rebound past Scrivens with 24 seconds left in regulation time.

Leafs tonight have a chance to reach the halfway mark of this lockout-shortened schedule with 15 wins and 30 points – a pace that would comfortably end the club’s franchise-record playoff drought. It would also keep the Blue and White in contention for first place in the Northeast Division – a stupefying accomplishment – and the benefit of home ice in the opening playoff round. These are lofty goals that no hockey observer believed remotely possible before the season. Now, they are somewhat credible.

Ultimately, however, the Big Bear in the room – literally and figuratively – will determine if Leafs can accomplish the unexpected. That’s why Thursday night’s game in Boston is the most influential hour of the Leafs’ season thus far. It marks Toronto’s first visit to TD Garden since an 8-0 annihilation last March that capped a six-game beat-down. A seventh consecutive loss to the Bruins followed on Feb. 2 of this season at Air Canada Centre – James Reimer solely responsible for a 1-0 margin, as Maple Leafs were out-shot, 34-21.

TUKKA RASK SHUT OUT JAMES van RIEMSDYK AND THE MAPLE LEAFS, 1-0, AT AIR CANADA CENTRE ON FEB. 2 – BOSTON’S SEVENTH CONSECUTIVE TRIUMPH OVER THE BLUE AND WHITE DATING TO LAST SEASON. GRAIG ABEL GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

Beginning Thursday, Toronto and Boston clash three times in 18 nights. After the finale, Mar. 25, we’ll be able to conclude how far Leafs have progressed.

IN ORDER TO SUSTAIN their playoff march, Leafs will have to avoid the Toronto Tank – a malady consistent with professional sports teams in this city and patented by the Blue and White in 1995-96, then again last season.

Under Pat Burns, the ’95-96 Maple Leafs appeared on their way to another strong showing with a 22-14-7 record after 43 games. In Game 44, the roof began to fall in. A 4-3 loss to New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum began a 3-16-3 death-spiral between Jan. 11 and Mar. 3, whereupon Burns was fired by GM Cliff Fletcher after a 4-0 road loss to Colorado Avalanche. Leafs did squeeze into the playoffs under interim coach Nick Beverley with a 34-36-12 mark but were ousted by St. Louis in the opening round.

Of more contemporary dismay was the grievous choke in the final third of last season. Leafs were nine full games over .500 (28-19-6) on Feb. 7 and solidly in contention for not only a playoff spot, but home-ice advantage in the opening round. No fan of the Blue and White needs a reminder of what followed: a 2-12-2 collapse over five weeks, during which Ron Wilson was replaced as coach by Randy Carlyle. Leafs won seven of their final 28 games; finished 26th in the overall standings, and missed the playoffs by 12 points.

For proof they aren’t alone in this town, we submit to you – as evidence – the 2012-13 Toronto Raptors. After an abominable 4-19 start to the NBA season, the club began to perform at more than a high-school level. Though routinely fading in the dying moments, Raptors won more than they lost between Dec. 14 and Feb. 22 – compiling a 19-14 mark and moving to within three games of playoff territory in the Eastern Conference. Star forward Rudy Gay was acquired from Memphis on Jan. 30 and Raptors had considerable playoff momentum – a laughable notion in the days before Christmas.

As we speak, however, the Toronto Tank is well underway.

An embarrassing home-court loss to Washington – third-last in the overall standings – began a five-game skid the Raptors will attempt to halt later tonight in Phoenix. As such, what loomed as a colossal game in Milwaukee four nights ago – the Bucks in possession of the final Eastern playoff berth – hardly mattered, with Toronto a full 7½ games out of post-season territory.

TORONTO RAPTORS WERE WITHOUT THEIR TOP PLAYER – RUDY GAY – WHEN THEY LOST THEIR FOURTH CONSECUTIVE NBA MATCH AT MILWAUKEE ON SATURDAY NIGHT. A FIFTH DEFEAT FOLLOWED IN OAKLAND ON MONDAY AGAINST THE GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS. RAPTORS ARE IN PHOENIX TONIGHT. JEFF HANISCH USA TODAY

Not to be outdone, the baseball Blue Jays have offered up a fair share of collapsing. Though they never seriously threatened for a playoff berth in the American League, the Jays were a respectable 51-49 on July 28 of last season. A 22-40 mark the rest of the way saw Toronto finish 16 games under .500 and 22 games behind first-place New York Yankees in the A.L. East.

On several prior occasions, the Blue Jays spectacularly coughed up playoff potential. In mid-August 1999, the club was competing for a wild-card berth at 65-51. But, a 12-23 nosedive between Aug. 12 and Sep. 21 put to rest any such hope. After a 10-18 start in 2003, the Jays went on a 36-16 tear. Playoff fantasy reigned among the denizens of Rogers Centre. It was demolished, however, when the team lapsed into an 8-20 free-fall. A surprise bolt from the gate in 2009 had Jays a solid 27-14 on May 18. Then came a 21-56 catastrophe between May 19 and Aug. 30 that destroyed another ray of hope.

Blue Jays, of course, are the standard-bearer of the Toronto Tank. With just one week left in the 1987 Major League season – and slugger George Bell on his way to becoming the American League’s Most Valuable Player – Jays had an apparently comfortable 3½-game lead over Detroit in the A.L. East, with four of their remaining seven matches against the Tigers. Somehow, the Jays lost all seven games and perished on the final afternoon of the schedule at Tiger Stadium. It remains the quintessential sporting choke in this city.

Toronto Argonauts – the defending Grey Cup champions – have also played their part. Argos routed Hamilton, 31-17, in the opener of a two-game, total-points Eastern Final in 1986 and carried a 14-point advantage into the finale on home turf. Toronto increased its margin to 24 points by grabbing a 10-0 first-quarter lead at Exhibition Stadium the following Sunday. Then came The Tank, as Hamilton (owned by Harold Ballard) out-scored Argos, 42-15, in the final three quarters for a 59-56 aggregate and a trip to the Grey Cup.

As of now, there is no indication the 2013 Maple Leafs will plummet into the Toronto Tank. But, neither was there reason to believe it would happen last year. As such, cockiness in Leafs Nation should be tempered until the final results are in – history providing a cautionary tale.

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