Pre-Expansion Battle Looming

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Apr. 9) – Cue the history books.

With nine games left in the regular season, it appears rather likely that Toronto Maple Leafs will hook up with either Boston or Montreal in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Mentioning the Leafs and playoffs in the same sentence is rare enough; projecting a match-up against the Bruins or Canadiens is comparatively pre-historic.

First to the scenario as it appears today. With a terrific 7-1-3 record in their past 11 games, Leafs have vaulted into fifth place in the Eastern Conference, four points ahead of Ottawa. Catching either Boston or Montreal is virtually out of the question – Bruins are six points ahead; Canadiens seven, each with a game in hand. Assuming neither the Bruins nor Canadiens overtake Pittsburgh atop the Conference – with Habs only three points behind, it cannot be ruled out – Boston and Montreal will occupy first and fourth in the East (according to points). The fourth-place team would open at home against Leafs in the Conference quarterfinal. Did you get all that?

To indicate the rarity of either match-up, consider that it’s been 34 years since Toronto and Montreal last hooked up in the playoffs; 39 years since the Leafs and Bruins squared off. Moreover, Leafs haven’t encountered any pre-expansion rival for 18 years, since losing a seven-game Conference quarterfinal to Chicago in 1995. How about this for time: Leafs haven’t defeated Boston on home ice in the playoffs since Mar. 31, 1959 – a 3-2 overtime victory at Maple Leaf Gardens in Game 3 of the Cup semifinals. Last time Toronto defeated Montreal at home in a playoff clash was – you guessed it – May 2, 1967, the night  Leafs won their most recent Stanley Cup.

So, the opening playoff round this spring could be rather heady stuff.

Hate to admit it, but I was 15 years old the last time Toronto and Boston met in the playoffs. In 1973-74, Leafs finished fourth in the East Division with 86 points, 27 fewer than the first-place Bruins. Hardly breaking a sweat, Boston cruised to a four-game quarterfinal sweep, outscoring the Leafs 17-9. Veteran winger Ken Hodge ended the series at Maple Leaf Gardens on Apr. 14, 1974 – a Sunday night – when he deflected a shot by Carol Vadnais past goalie Doug Favell at 1:27 of overtime. Wayne Cashman also assisted in the play.

From my scrapbook collection:  

BOSTON WINGER KEN HODGE RAISES STICK (ABOVE-RIGHT) AND JUMPS FOR JOY (BELOW) AFTER SCORING AT 1:27 OF OVERTIME AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS ON SUN. APR. 14, 1974, GIVING BRUINS A FOUR-GAME QUARTERFINAL SWEEP OF THE LEAFS. TORONTO GOALIE IS DOUG FAVELL. LEAF DEFENSEMEN (BELOW) ARE MIKE PELYK (4) AND JIM McKENNY (18). BRUINS WENT ON TO LOSE STANLEY CUP TO PHILADELPHIA – FLYERS BECOMING FIRST OF THE 1967 EXPANSION TEAMS TO WIN THE NHL TITLE.

TICKET STUB FROM MAPLE LEAF GARDENS ON APR. 14, 1974 – THE NIGHT BOSTON ELIMINATED TORONTO FROM THE STANLEY CUP QUARTERFINALS ON AN OVERTIME GOAL BY KEN HODGE. LEAFS AND BRUINS HAVE NOT SINCE MET IN THE PLAYOFFS.

I had just broken into my 20’s when the Maple Leafs and Canadiens last quarreled in the playoffs. Steaming toward a fourth consecutive Stanley Cup, the Habs finished with 115 points in 1978-79, a full 34 points better than the Leafs. Before tackling Montreal, Leafs swept Atlanta Flames in a best-of-three preliminary round. The tone of the Leafs-Habs quarterfinal was set in Games 1 and 2 at the Montreal Forum, when Canadiens romped by a 10-3 aggregate. The series tightened up at Maple Leaf Gardens – journeyman Cam Connor scoring in double-overtime of Game 3 to give the Habs a stranglehold in the best-of-seven. Then came Apr. 22 and a wild, unforgettable scene.

Looking to extend the series, Leafs again stood with the Canadiens for 60 minutes – Walt McKechnie and Dan Maloney scoring on Ken Dryden 29 seconds apart late in the third period to force a second overtime in as many nights. This one ended much earlier… and with raging controversy.

At 2:38 of the first extra frame, referee Bob Myers assessed a high-sticking penalty on Leafs enforcer Dave (Tiger) Williams after a collision along the boards with Montreal defenseman Larry Robinson. It was the type of marginal call you rarely see in the playoffs; even today, with far more strict guidelines, it would be considered borderline. Enabling Montreal’s powerplay was forever perilous in that era, as Scotty Bowman could utilize Jacques Lemaire, Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Robinson and Guy Lapointe.

As such, it was hardly astounding when Robinson blew a screened slapshot from 40 feet past Toronto goalie Paul Harrison at 4:14 of the first overtime session, eliminating Leafs from the playoffs in the minimum four games. As the triumphant Canadiens pored off their bench, Williams stormed out of the penalty box and made a bee-line for Myers. Had he not been intercepted by Maloney, it is anyone’s guess what might have happened.

All these years later, the Tiger swears he would have pummeled Myers, therefore incurring a lifetime ban from the NHL. As Williams struggled to break free, Robinson left Montreal’s celebration; grabbed him by the shoulder, and issued a none-to-nose warning about the consequences of attacking a referee. Williams cooled down.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment, as evidenced here:

IT WAS A REMARKABLE SCENE AFTER LARRY ROBINSON OF MONTREAL ELIMINATED THE LEAFS WITH A POWERPLAY GOAL IN OVERTIME ON APR. 22, 1979. LEAFS WINGER DAVE (TIGER) WILLIAMS, IN THE PENALTY BOX FOR HIGH-STICKING, BARGED OUT AND HAD TO BE RESTRAINED BY HIS TEAMMATES – AND ROBINSON – FROM ATTACKING REFEREE BOB MYERS.

LARRY ROBINSON OF THE HABS LOOKS ON AS DAN MALONEY PINS TEAMMATE DAVE (TIGER) WILLIAMS TO THE ICE TO PREVENT WILLIAMS FROM GETTING AT REFEREE BOB MYERS. ALSO WATCHING IS LEAF DEFENSEMAN DAVE BURROWS (26) AND WINGER JOHN ANDERSON.

TICKET STUB FROM MAPLE LEAF GARDENS ON SUN. APR. 22, 1979 – NIGHT LARRY ROBINSON ELIMINATED LEAFS WITH CONTROVERSIAL OVERTIME GOAL. TORONTO AND MONTREAL HAVE NOT SINCE HOOKED UP IN THE STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS.

Though Leafs were 0-and-8 in their last playoff meetings with Boston and Montreal, a first-round battle this spring would re-kindle the flame.

Don’t bet against it.

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