Leafs Better to Start Playoffs on Road

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Apr. 26) – Given the lukewarm reaction on Twitter to Montreal defeating Winnipeg Thursday night, fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs are unconcerned that their team is starting on the road in the playoffs. And that makes a whole lot of sense.

Leafs are much better off beginning the Stanley Cup tournament on foreign ice, particularly if Montreal – as it would appear – becomes their first-round opponent. Any follower of the Blue and White will quickly understand my line of thinking. Though the Leafs have virtually identical home and road records in this shortened season, the club is more relaxed and focused away from the fluctuating environment of the Air Canada Centre.

In my opinion, the perfect scenario would have the Maple Leafs splitting their two road matches – losing the opener and winning the second game to arrive home with purpose and momentum. What could possibly be harmful about the club winning both games to begin the series? Easy answer: overconfidence; a sense of entitlement and artificial destiny.

I’ve seen the calamitous result on three occasions.

STARTING THE PLAYOFFS IN MONTREAL – IF CANADIENS ARE THEIR OPPONENT – WOULD SUIT THE  LEAFS JUST FINE.

In 1977 – having not won a game at Philadelphia since December 1971 – Leafs marched into the Spectrum and twice hammered the Flyers to begin a Stanley Cup quarterfinal. Truth be known, Toronto should have swept the series at home, giving up a last-minute lead in Game 3 and blowing a 5-2 advantage in the final 6½ minutes of Game 4 – losing both in overtime. Nonetheless, Philadelphia rebounded to win four straight.

It happened again, ten years later.

After upsetting St. Louis in the opening round of the 1987 playoffs, Leafs went into Detroit and grabbed the first two games of a Conference semifinal – destroying the Red Wings, 7-2, in the latter match. A split of games at Maple Leaf Gardens had Leafs on the verge of another upset before Detroit recovered to win three straight.

Then came 1995 – the only previous time NHL teams played a lockout-shortened schedule of 48 games. After a mediocre performance in the regular season (21-19-8 for 50 points), Leafs went into the brand new United Center and twice defeated Chicago Blackhawks to start the Cup tournament. With their ecstatic followers smelling blood, Leafs returned the favor – losing Games 3 and 4 at the Gardens. An overtime escape at home in Game 6 (winger Randy Wood scoring to prevent elimination) delayed the inevitable and Maple Leafs were put to rest in Game 7 at Chicago.

      

SINCE 1977, LEAFS HAVE LOST BEST-OF-SEVEN PLAYOFF SERIES TO THE ABOVE TEAMS AFTER WINNING FIRST TWO GAMES ON THE ROAD.

In 2002, Leafs faced off against New York Islanders in a belligerent opening-round. Winning the first two games at Air Canada Centre didn’t amount to much, as the Conference quarterfinal went the distance – Toronto prevailing in Game 7 with each team holding serve on home ice.

So, too much success at the beginning of a series hasn’t guaranteed much for the Blue and White in the past generation. 

PROGRAM FROM THE NASSAU COLISEUM DURING MAPLE LEAFS – NEW YORK ISLANDERS SEVEN-GAME PLAYOFF WAR IN 2002.

As is custom in our society, a Toronto-Montreal playoff series will be hyped beyond imagination. Leafs appearing in the playoffs alone – though hardly incredible given that 16 teams advance every year – will provide enough local delirium after a nine-year absence. Montreal as a first-round opponent will only heighten the frenzy here in town.

It has been 34 years since the long-time rivals hooked up, but Stanley Cup engagements between the two have been largely uneventful.

Only one of 13 series has gone seven games: the 1964 Cup semifinal in which Leafs defeated Canadiens, 3-1, at the Montreal Forum – Dave Keon scoring all the Toronto goals. The 1967 encounter went six games, but most were lop-sided. This series has taken on mythical dimension through the years for it being the last Toronto Stanley Cup triumph. Otherwise, it was a humdrum affair. The 1978 and 1979 quarterfinal meetings were laughable, as Montreal twice obliterated the Leafs in four games. Nonetheless, a playoff clash this spring – should it occur – will be met with a deluge of words extolling the glorious post-season history between Toronto and Montreal.

Much of it will be romantic nonsense.

All that matters is that both clubs will need to withstand the hype. This will be toughest on the home team, whose players will not be able to escape the attention of family and friends; walk the streets without being accosted, or evade the encumbrance of putting on a show to start the series.

Leafs will not feel the same burden. Nor will they be at all intimidated at the Bell Centre, where they’ve twice prevailed – a 6-0 rout on Feb. 9 being the low point of Canadiens otherwise splendid season. 

Toronto, in fact, would have road-ice advantage.

I’m not sure the same story line applies to a series against Boston or Washington, though the chances of such are remote.

Neither club engenders the passion of Leaf fans; certainly not to the extent of Montreal. Leafs and Boston haven’t quarreled in the playoffs since 1974 and a Toronto-Washington series – though enticing with the Alex Ovechkin component – would be a first. Starting on the road against Bruins or Capitals would, in my view, be less of a factor than against the Canadiens.

All of this begins to unfold on Tuesday or Wednesday of next week.

Bet you can hardly wait.

TWENTY YEARS AGO

In the Spring of 1993 – as many of you fondly recall – Leafs went deeper into the playoffs than at any time since last winning the Stanley Cup. On this date in ’93, Leafs traveled to Detroit for Game 5 of their opening-round series, having drawn even with the Red Wings by virtue of consecutive wins at Maple Leaf Gardens. The plucky visitors would storm back from a 4-1 deficit to dramatically prevail in the pivotal match at Joe Louis Arena – winning early in overtime on a goal by Mike Foligno. Another extra-frame conquest, four nights later, eliminated the Red Wings – Nikolai Borschevsky forever carving a spot in Leaf annals by re-directing a shot by defenseman Bob Rouse.

          

LEAFS CELEBRATE MIKE FOLIGNO OVERTIME GOAL AT JOE LOUIS ARENA IN GAME 5 OF 1993 OPENING ROUND SERIES AGAINST DETROIT.

LEAFS vs. ST. LOUIS BLUES

With the exception of Game 1 – ended by a now-fabled goal in double-overtime – the Leafs-St. Louis Western Conference semifinal is the “forgotten” series of 1993.

The seven-game victory over Detroit – Leafs winning Games 5 and 7 at Joe Louis Arena in overtime – is easily recalled; many Leaf fans can rhyme off just about everything that happened in the Conference final against Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings. But, the St. Louis series – also a seven-gamer – is not quite as venerable. As such, I will now provide a refresher.

    File:Stanley Cup 1993 Logo.gif  File:StLouisBlues1990s.png

GAME 1: ST. LOUIS at TORONTO – MON. MAY 4, 1993

Any fan of the Maple Leafs can tell you – 20 years later – where he or she was when Doug Gilmour won the opener of the St. Louis series with a backhand wrap-around in double-overtime. It was the most memorable playoff goal by a Leaf player since Lanny McDonald won the 1978 quarterfinal series over New York Islanders in Game 7 at the Nassau Coliseum.

GAME 3: TORONTO at ST. LOUIS – FRI. MAY 7, 1993

Game 2 at Maple Leaf Gardens also went to double-overtime before Jeff Brown beat Felix Potvin from 30 feet to tie the best-of-seven affair 1-1. In Game 3, at St. Louis Arena, defenseman Garth Butcher scored with 10:36 left in regulation to give the Blues a 2-1 series lead.  

GAME 4: TORONTO at ST. LOUIS – SUN. MAY 9, 1993

As they did throughout the ’93 playoffs, Leafs bounced back on the road – clobbering the Blues, 4-1, in an afternoon game to knot the series 2-2.

GAME 6: TORONTO at ST. LOUIS – THU. MAY 13, 1993

When Leafs hammered the Blues, 5-1, in Game 5 at the Gardens, most observers expected the series to end in Game 6 at St. Louis. But, the Blues scratched out a 2-1 victory on third-period goals by Dave Lowry and Jeff Brown to set up a deciding match two nights later. 

GAME 7: ST. LOUIS at TORONTO – SAT. MAY 15, 1993

Before another rabid home audience, the Leafs left nothing to chance – blitzing St. Louis for four unanswered goals in the opening period en route to a 6-0 rout. It sent Toronto into the Conference final against Los Angeles. 

        

        

Can Leafs create some new memories 20 years later?

We’ll find out very soon.

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