By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Apr. 15) – I know. You think I’m nuts. The headline of this blog is surely a sign that I’ve gone over the edge – into the deepest part of the lake. But, hang on a moment.
Whether you like me; don’t like me, or feel indifferent, you cannot deny that I’ve covered lots of hockey since 1988 – when I joined what would become The FAN-590 – and then last spring for NHL Home Ice on Sirius-XM and my blog. Though the Leafs haven’t been to the post-season in nine years, I covered 143 playoff games involving the Blue and White between 1988 and 2004. That’s right – 143 games. I’ve been to the Stanley Cup final 20 times since 1985, including 11 in succession beginning with the 1998 series between Detroit and Washington. I attended all 20 games last year involving the Stanley Cup-champion Los Angeles Kings, through series with Vancouver, St. Louis, Phoenix and New Jersey. So, I feel I’m qualified to determine – beyond good or bad luck – the components of a Stanley Cup team.
As of this writing, the Maple Leafs have them all.
Coaching? Check. Goaltending? Check. Toughness through the roster? Check. Balance up front? Check. Scoring? Check. Size and abrasiveness on the blue-line? Check. Comeback ability? Check. Finishing kick? Check.
What the Leafs do not have – as a group – is playoff experience. How important that is depends on your point of view, but I can tell you this: the defending champions had virtually no time together in the Stanley Cup tournament until Game 1 against Vancouver a year ago this week. That didn’t prevent the Kings from romping to the NHL championship with a 16-4 record, or from accomplishing a feat we’ll likely not witness again for decades – winning the first two games on the road in all four playoff series.
So, why can’t the Leafs go all the way this spring?
YVAN COURNOYER OF MONTREAL HAS GOOD SCORING CHANCE AGAINST TERRY SAWCHUK DURING 1967 STANLEY CUP FINAL. LEAFS UPSET CANADIENS TO WIN THE NHL TITLE IN SIX GAMES. COULD THEY PULL ANOTHER UPSET 46 YEARS LATER?
Is it because other teams are simply better in the standings? Were that a determining factor, L.A. wouldn’t have gotten past the opening round last year. Vancouver wouldn’t have made it to the Stanley Cup final in 1994; New Jersey in 1995; Florida in 1996; Washington in 1998; Carolina in 2002; Anaheim in 2003; Calgary in 2004; Edmonton in 2007; Philadelphia in 2010; neither the Kings nor the Devils last spring. This season, in particular, is a crap-shoot, given the 48-game, lockout-shortened sprint.
So, I ask again, would a Toronto Stanley Cup victory stun the hockey universe? It has to happen one of these decades. Chicago busted a 49-year drought in 2010. Why can’t the Leafs end their 46-year famine this season?
Though Chicago, Pittsburgh, Anaheim and Montreal have led the pack from the outset, each club has its shortcoming. The Penguins were favored by many a year ago only to watch Marc-Andre Fleury implode against Philadelphia in the first round. Blackhawks have been the runaway best team in the league since opening night but they haven’t encountered the Leafs. Neither has Anaheim. Montreal, though the surprise of the NHL, has been embarrassed on two occasions against Toronto: 6-0 at the Bell Centre on Feb. 9 and 5-1 here in town on Saturday night.
Above all else, is there a team in the league performing better than the Leafs right now – with one regulation loss in 14 games dating to Mar. 16? Toronto’s lone bugaboo is the shoot-out. No such nonsense occurs in the playoffs.
So, ask yourself: Why not the Leafs?
I dare you to come up with a fool-proof answer.
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