By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Apr. 11) – For fans of the Maple Leafs, there have been many strange and wonderful happenings in the lockout-shortened 2013 season. Nothing, however, is quite so bizarre as the Leafs standing a full six points ahead of Detroit after 40 games.
Yes, Detroit: the club with four Stanley Cup titles and 13 seasons of 100 or more points since 1996-97. The franchise that has recorded – since the last 48-game schedule in 1995 – season victory totals of 62 (NHL record), 58, 54, 51 (twice) and 50. The Red Wings of such all-time legends as Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Igor Larionov, Viacheslav Fetisov, Sergei Fedorov, Chris Chelios, Dominik Hasek, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Coached by the greatest of them all: Scotty Bowman.
While the current season is an anomaly – a sprint rather than a marathon; devoid of inter-Conference play – it is nonetheless uncanny to watch Detroit struggling for a playoff berth in the West (eighth place after 39 games, one point up on ninth-place Phoenix) while Toronto sits comfortably in fifth spot in the Eastern Conference, seven points clear of ninth-place Winnipeg.
Hockey fans in this part of the world are painfully aware the Leafs haven’t qualified for the Stanley Cup tournament in eight seasons. Detroit, by comparison, hasn’t missed the playoffs since 1989-90 – appearing for 21 consecutive springs. Twelve NHL seasons have passed since the Leafs finished ahead of Detroit in the standings: 1998-99, to be exact, the year Ken Dryden returned Toronto to the Eastern Conference and Pat Quinn began his seven-year term as coach by guiding Leafs into the Stanley Cup semifinals.
Leafs and Red Wings hooked up three times that season – including the final home opener at Maple Leaf Gardens and a New Year’s Eve clash at Joe Louis Arena. Toronto won all three. Please enjoy this visual review:
IT MAY HAVE BEEN A HAPPY NEW YEAR IN DETROIT, BUT NOT FOR FANS OF THE RED WINGS AFTER LEAFS SKATED TO A 4-2 TRIUMPH ON DEC. 31, 1998 AT JOE LOUIS ARENA.
MAPLE LEAFS 1998-99 HOME OPENER
After 67 years at the famed corner of Church and Carlton, the Maple Leafs shifted south to the Air Canada Centre on Feb. 20, 1999. The final home opener in Maple Leaf Gardens history was Oct. 10, 1998 against Detroit.
COVER OF PROGRAM FROM FINAL SEASON-OPENING HOCKEY GAME AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS. LEAFS EDGED DETROIT, 2-1, ON SECOND-PERIOD GOAL BY ALYN McCAULEY.
FRI. OCT. 23, 1998: TORONTO at DETROIT
After undergoing a knee replacement and angioplasty in the summer of 1998, Scotty Bowman returned to coach the Red Wings for this Friday night game against the Maple Leafs at Joe Louis Arena. It was not an enjoyable occasion.
COVER OF PROGRAM FROM TORONTO AT DETROIT GAME, FRI. OCT. 23, 1998.
THU. DEC. 31, 1998 – TORONTO at DETROIT
Steve Thomas had a goal and an assist to lead Toronto past Detroit, 4-2, at Joe Louis Arena on New Year’s Eve 1998 – Leafs completing a season sweep.
COVER OF PROGRAM (ABOVE) AND LINE-UPS (BELOW) FROM LEAFS-DETROIT GAME AT JOE LOUIS ARENA, DEC. 31, 1998. TORONTO PREVAILED, 4-2.
IF THE FIRST DAY OF THIS MONTH IS APRIL FOOL’S, APR. 11 MUST BE DOUBLE-FOOL’S. HOW ELSE CAN WE EXPLAIN THE VIEWS (ABOVE AND BELOW) OUT MY FRONT DOOR EARLY THIS AFTERNOON? A GREEN CHRISTMAS AND WHITE APRIL. ONLY IN TORONTO.
AFTER A LENGTHY BATTLE WITH CIRCULATORY PROBLEMS, HAROLD BALLARD (ABOVE) DIED 23 YEARS AGO TODAY – APR. 11, 1990. HE WAS 87. BALLARD’S 28-YEAR OWNERSHIP OF THE LEAFS WAS THE DARKEST EPOCH IN FRANCHISE HISTORY.
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