Read Carefully, Leaf Fans

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Apr. 19) – I’m going to say this twice and I’m going to color it differently, because once – clearly – is not enough:

THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO CHANCE – I MEAN ZERO PERCENT – THAT THE MAPLE LEAFS WILL MISS THE PLAYOFFS THIS SEASON.

Again…

THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO CHANCE – I MEAN ZERO PERCENT – THAT THE MAPLE LEAFS WILL MISS THE PLAYOFFS THIS SEASON.

You can translate the above sentence to French, Spanish, Italian or any other language. But, you cannot change the essence.

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Now to my blog…

Oh, the Maple Leafs were bad against the New York Islanders Thursday night. Eighteen-wheeler bad. While losing 5-3 to the up-starts from Nassau County, Leafs most closely resembled the group that swan-dove in the final third of last season. Motivation… aspiration… concentration… application… and any other “ation” you can find was missing. The relentless puck-pursuit; offensive-zone cycling and quick defensive transition – all of which have been Leaf staples this season – were nowhere to be found. Even James Reimer, though hardly provided support, looked rather humdrum.

It was a lousy game – from top to bottom.

But, let’s try – once again – to summon a fragment of perspective. Though Leafs have clearly regressed in three games since pummeling Montreal last Saturday, a two-game losing streak does not indicate the end is near.

If anything, Leafs are discovering – first hand – what they cannot do once the Stanley Cup tournament is underway. And, better it happen now than in Game 1 at Boston, Montreal or Washington. This is where a knowledgeable, experienced coach like Randy Carlyle comes in. Though Carlyle looked as if he was bordering on a conniption every time Leafs TV focused on him Thursday night, he knows precisely what isn’t working right now. With few exceptions, the players have responded to him all season, thus authoring one of the surprise narratives in the NHL. It is therefore reasonable to assume the Maple Leafs are hiccuping at this moment rather than folding.

YES, LEAFS PLAYED POORLY AND WERE ROUTED BY MATT MOULSON AND THE NEW YORK ISLANDERS THURSDAY NIGHT AT AIR CANADA CENTRE. BUT, THERE IS NO DANGER OF LEAFS MISSING THE PLAYOFFS. GRAIG ABEL GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

Apprehension can be soothed, to a fair degree, by gazing at the Eastern Conference standings. Leafs remain fifth – five points ahead of ninth-place Winnipeg (thus the CAPITAL LETTERS above) – with Ottawa, the Islanders and Rangers in between. In an absolute worst-case scenario – and don’t bet a nickle on it happening – Leafs would fall to eighth in the Conference and match up against Pittsburgh in the opening round.

Philadelphia, if I recall, rather enjoyed that encounter last spring when Marc-Andre Fleury pulled a Jonas Gustavsson. You can be certain Fleury will have lots on his mind going into the Cup tournament after, undoubtedly, burning visual evidence of his crack-up against the Flyers. Moreover, there is no indication Sidney Crosby will have recovered from the broken jaw he suffered when hit by a shot from teammate Brooks Orpik on Mar. 30.

But, again, we’re talking worst-case scenario.

My bet is Leafs will place no lower than sixth in the Conference: a spot that would guarantee a match-up with Washington in the first round. Though the Capitals, and Alex Ovechkin, have been on fire, I would rather engage a free-wheeling opponent in the playoffs. Going with percentages, Boston will be extremely difficult to subdue in a best-of-seven series, as will the Canadiens, if Carey Price is on his game. Besides, Ovie would be fun to watch.

In the meantime, take a breath. Have some confidence in Carlyle fixing what appears to be broken and the Leaf players – undaunted all season – finding their panache. If someone had told you the day the lockout ended that Leafs would be five points clear of missing the playoffs on Apr. 19, you would have gone to bed happily ever after.

And, yes, a team can turn it on – if required – in the post-season.

SPEAKING OF PLEASANT LEAF MEMORIES, it was 20 years ago tonight – Apr. 19, 1993 – that Pat Burns, Doug Gilmour, Dave Andreychuk, Wendel Clark and Co. began their magical playoff ride of 21 games in 42  days that ended minutes shy of a trip to the Stanley Cup final.

Mind you, there were no happy Leaf faces on this date in ’93, after a 6-3 pounding at Detroit to begin the post season. But, seven-game victories over the Red Wings and St. Louis led to another marathon against Los Angeles for the Campbell Conference championship – and the now-fabled ending to that series at Maple Leaf Gardens on May 29, when Wayne Gretzky put out the fire with a three-goal annihilation of the Blue and White.

File:StLouisBlues1990s.png

It all got underway 20 years ago tonight at Joe Louis Arena.

DOUG GILMOUR OF MAPLE LEAFS IN THE 1993 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS.

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