By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Apr. 17) – Okay, let’s get the obvious out of the way. There has been; is, and always will be fear and trepidation among fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs. It is in-bred for those of all ages: hockey veterans that remember the last Stanley Cup triumph in 1967 and young, impressionable fans that have only read about ’67.
Therefore, do not be alarmed if you are fetching your psychologist today in panic over the Leafs – losers of one in a row. Any therapy is better than no therapy. Late in Tuesday night’s 5-1 flop at Washington, a desperate email arrived: “This lack of scoring has me really concerned.” The messenger was clearly distraught over Leafs offense apparently drying up until I reminded him the club had raked Montreal for five big ones just three nights earlier. He returned my offering with a heavy sigh of relief and gratitude.
You see, folks, this is par for the course here and likely will remain so at least until the next time a Toronto captain raises the Stanley Cup. A two-goal shutout victory followed by a one-game losing streak is enough to send people close to the edge. Subliminally, Randy Carlyle has fueled apprehension by merely voicing his lack of fulfillment in all situations – good, adequate or lousy. Carlyle could win the Stanley Cup and tell reporters: “Yeah, we did alright but we have to be mentally prepared for that first exhibition game next fall.” He is never satisfied; nor is any coach worth his salt. As such, “concern” over the relatively tepid performance of his team in recent days – even when victorious – resonates loudly.
When the Leafs mail one in as they did at the Verizon Center on Tuesday, the anxiety meter flutters, instantly, from one to ten. It becomes an automatic sign of collapse. Another email after the Washington game insisted to me that Leafs “are in trouble going into the playoffs cold.” Honestly. One goalie-procured victory followed by only the second regulation-time loss in a month is evidence Leafs are stumbling into the post-season. Never mind the six remaining games in the schedule; the team is flat and ripe for humiliation.
LEAFS WERE HAMMERED ON TUESDAY BY ALEX OVECHKIN AND THE WASHINGTON CAPITALS BUT IT DOESN’T MEAN DISASTER. PATRICK McDERMOTT GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
Even if that is true, here are some reminders that may be cathartic.
It was a long time ago, but the 1977-78 Maple Leafs under Roger Neilson – having compiled the most points in a season (92) since 1951 – were said to have run out of gas in the final weeks. Indeed, after recording a terrific 39-19-10 record through 68 games, Leafs spiraled to 2-10-0 in their final 12 matches. All, apparently, was lost. When the playoffs began, Leafs destroyed Los Angeles in sweeping a best-of-three preliminary round, out-scoring the Kings, 11-3. They followed with a seven-game conquest of the prohibitively favored New York Islanders – won, legendarily, by Lanny McDonald in overtime of the deciding match at Nassau Coliseum. The magical run came to a screeching, four-game halt against Montreal in the Stanley Cup semifinals, not because Leafs had emptied the tank but as a result of Canadiens being, arguably, the greatest team in National Hockey League history.
Even the dreadful Leafs of 1986-87 made lots of noise in the playoffs. That team – 32-42-6 under John Brophy – finished the schedule at 4-6-0: a veritable hot streak. Nothing was expected of the club in the post-season yet it nearly wound up in the Stanley Cup semifinals. After knocking off St. Louis in the opening round – goalie Ken Wregget providing miracles – Leafs went into Detroit and blasted the Red Wings, 4-2 and 7-2, in the first two matches of the Campbell Conference semi. The club took a 3-1 series lead on an overtime goal by Mike Allison at Maple Leaf Gardens. With one more victory, Leafs would have met Wayne Gretzky and Edmonton for the Conference title. Perhaps mercifully, Detroit rebounded to win three in a row – and the series in seven. Oilers knocked off Philadelphia in the Stanley Cup final.
So, really, worrying about the Leafs from shift to shift is pointless. The current team has proven it can rise to the occasion against all Conference opponents. Leafs manhandled the Penguins in Pittsburgh (5-2) early in the schedule. Montreal has twice been humiliated. In their biggest test, Leafs took three of four points from Boston in back-to-back games. Ottawa is 1-3 against the Blue and White. No one can predict how Toronto might fare against Western opposition with the lack of inter-Conference play in the lockout-shortened schedule. But, I’m sure Leaf fans would love to find out.
My advice going forward: Relax and enjoy what has been a thoroughly unexpected performance by your team this season. Rather than fretting over a lop-sided, relatively inconsequential defeat, close your eyes and imagine the possibilities. I guarantee you’ll like the feeling better.
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