By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Mar. 30) – I think it should be obvious now that Maple Leafs are worthy of qualifying for the Stanley Cup tournament in the Eastern Conference. There is virtually no let-up in this team and it has a marvelous finishing kick, as evidenced by Thursday night’s comeback against Carolina at the Air Canada Centre.
Neither is it practical any longer for fans of the Blue and White to be concerned about mathematics. Leafs 4-1-4 record since losing to Winnipeg at MTS Centre, Mar. 12, is hardly overwhelming, but more than adequate to stifle any notion of a late-season collapse. Even if the team compiled an ugly 3-9-0 mark in its final 12 games, it would be nearly impossible for New York Islanders, Carolina or Washington to catch up. So, don’t waste time fretting.
Numbers today show that Leafs are clearly within range of fourth-place Boston in the Conference – a spot that would guarantee home-ice advantage in the opening playoff round. Such accomplishment, however, is rather unlikely as the Bruins are four points up with three games in hand, and the season victory over Toronto (2-1-1) in head-to-head competition.
JOFFREY LUPUL CELEBRATES WITH PHIL KESSEL AFTER DECIDING THURSDAY NIGHT’S GAME AGAINST CAROLINA AT AIR CANADA CENTRE WITH DAZZLING END-TO-END RUSH. GRAIG ABEL GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
Leafs, in fact, are situated perfectly right now, given that the club finishing sixth in the Eastern Conference will almost surely match up against Winnipeg. That sounds a lot more appealing than a first-round engagement with Boston or Ottawa. Falling to seventh place could easily bring about a delectable Toronto-Montreal playoff encounter for the first time since 1979. Though Leafs would be a prohibitive underdog, we all remember consecutive triumphs by the Blue and White at Bell Centre early in the schedule (Jan. 19 and Feb. 9) – the latter a 6-0 embarrassment for the home side.
A regulation victory by the Leafs over Ottawa tonight would deadlock the provincial rivals at 44 points and improve Toronto’s chance of facing Boston in the opening round. It may therefore be a perfect occasion for Leaf fans to cheer Daniel Alfredsson – abhorrent though it may seem.
IT DOESN’T TAKE A LOT TO MAKE ME feel my age, but to think Gordie Howe will turn 85 on Sunday boggles the mind. I can still close my eyes and see Mr. Hockey skating around in the warm-up at Maple Leaf Gardens before my first-ever NHL game – Sat. Dec. 3, 1966 – in his white Detroit uniform with the red winged-wheel logo, pants and jersey trim. Howe was four months shy of his 38th birthday, but he still dominated the ice like no other player.
GORDIE HOWE GRACED THE COVER OF THE DETROIT RED WINGS MEDIA GUIDE (ABOVE AND BELOW) ON NUMEROUS OCCASIONS IN THE 1960’s AND 70’s.
OFFICIAL NHL GUIDE IN HOWE’S LAST SEASON WITH RED WINGS.
MAPLE LEAF GARDENS PROGRAM LINE-UPS FROM DETROIT AT TORONTO GAMES IN 1965-66 (ABOVE) AND 1967-68 (BELOW).
Another searing memory is the night of Oct. 31, 1979 when the 52-year-old marvel came to town with Hartford Whalers for the first time. I don’t remember what prompted me to move from my season tickets in the south mezzanine Blues to the Gold seats at ice level behind the south net, but I was in that very spot when Howe stepped over the blue line and whipped one of his patented wrist shots over the shoulder of Leafs goalie Mike Palmateer. Former Leaf captain Dave Keon also scored for Hartford that night – each player earning a long, warm ovation from the Gardens crowd.
Happy 85th to hockey’s living legend – No. 9 – Gordie Howe.
CERAMIC LIKENESS OF GORDIE HOWE (ABOVE) WEARING WHITE HARTFORD WHALERS UNIFORM IN 1979-80 – HIS FINAL SEASON IN THE NHL.
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