By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Nov. 21) – Including injuries, the Toronto Maple Leafs have overcome every obstacle in their path during the first quarter of the National Hockey League season. Except for one.
Though points earned in the standings may not be distinguishable, various achievements most certainly are. Some people refer to them as “statement” games. For the Maple Leafs, these matches often occur on the biggest stage, which – in this country – is a nationwide, prime time audience against elite opposition on Hockey Night In Canada. Leafs have had four such games to this point in the schedule and have failed, rather miserably, in three of them. Performances ranging from mediocre to poor resulted in losses at Chicago (Oct. 19), Vancouver (Nov. 2) and Boston (Nov. 9). Conversely, the Maple Leafs’ most exhilarating moments also occurred on a Saturday (Oct. 26) during a three-goal, third-period uprising at home to Pittsburgh. Toronto prevailed, 4-1.
Stage fright of any scope is unbecoming to the Leafs, given how they functioned (and excelled) in grand theater during the playoffs last spring. Under Randy Carlyle, the club seemed made-for-bright-lights against Boston – until, of course, the dubious final ten minutes of the opening-round series. Still, coast-to-coast recognition hardly deterred the young, energetic Leafs. Overcoming elite opposition is very important to the Blue and White, primarily because the Leafs are now amid such company. It wasn’t long ago that any opponent was considered superior and most victories an upset. Through the first quarter of this season, only a handful of teams have been significant measure – Chicago, Vancouver, Boston and Pittsburgh among them.
A THREE-GOAL ERUPTION IN THE THIRD PERIOD AGAINST SIDNEY CROSBY AND PITTSBURGH PENGUINS AT AIR CANADA CENTRE, OCT. 26, PRODUCED LEAFS “BIGGEST STAGE” WIN OF THE SEASON THUS FAR. GRAIG ABEL GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
Of course, many more “statement” games are on the horizon for the Maple Leafs, beginning this Saturday – at home – against Washington Capitals and the reigning Hart Trophy winner, Alex Ovechkin. Any Saturday night match-up against Montreal is considered “big stage” and Leafs have four such games left on the schedule. Hockey Night In Canada encounters against Chicago, Detroit (twice), New York Rangers and Vancouver also remain. And, the biggest stage of all this season will be on a Wednesday afternoon – Jan. 1 – when the Maple Leafs and Red Wings hook up in the Bridgestone Winter Classic outdoor match at University of Michigan Stadium (a.k.a. the Big House) in Ann Arbor.
So, there is plenty of time and opportunity before the playoffs for Leafs to prove they can once again excel in the spotlight. Largely underplayed to this point in the schedule is a superb record (8-2-0) on home ice. For eons – here and elsewhere – the struggle to take command at Air Canada Centre (and, before that, Maple Leaf Gardens) has been highlighted as a major shortcoming for the Blue and White. Traditionally, and with little exception, contending teams for the Stanley Cup dominate at home; look no further than Chicago’s 18-3-3 mark at United Center during the abbreviated schedule last year. In their four Stanley Cup seasons since 1997, Detroit’s combined record at Joe Louis Arena was 102-36-28. Montreal won the Cup in 1976-77 with a 33-1-6 mark at the Forum; Habs were 32-3-5 the previous year.
Leafs, for the most part, have played more comfortably on the road. Even last year – when the club finally broke its seven-season playoff drought – Leafs were 13-9-2 at home; 13-8-3 away from home. Not since way back in 1970-71 – Darryl Sittler’s rookie season – have the Leafs been in single-digit losses at home (24-9-6) during a full NHL schedule.
That’s why the 8-2-0 dominance thus far at Air Canada Centre is so impressive (and critical). It puts the team on pace for roughly 33 victories, which would smash the franchise record of 26 home conquests in 2005-06. Leafs haven’t deserved all of their wins at the ACC; goaltending has routinely compensated for lop-sided deficits on the shot clock. But, 16 of 20 points is still quite an accomplishment.
PAT QUINN vs. BOBBY ORR
There’s a remarkable passage in Bobby Orr’s autobiography (cover above) pertaining to the legendary hit he absorbed from Maple Leafs defenseman (and future coach) Pat Quinn during Game 1 of the Stanley Cup quarterfinals in 1969. Leafs were in the midst of getting obliterated, 10-0, at Boston Garden when Quinn caught Orr with his head down carrying the puck toward center ice. Launching his entire 215-pound frame at Orr, Quinn sent the peerless blue-liner catapulting backward. Orr struck his head on the ice and was rendered unconscious.
Referee John Ashley imposed a five-minute elbowing major on Quinn, who was assaulted by fans in the penalty box and was fortunate to escape to the visitors’ dressing room. Orr picks up the story:
I stayed in the hospital overnight for observation. Early the next morning, after I was discharged, I had an encounter I have never disclosed, but it is one I will not soon forget. Once the doctors had determined I was well enough to leave the hospital, I headed back to the hotel where the entire team was staying for the playoff run. The team was staying in a hotel together so we would have as few distractions as possible, even when we were playing in Boston.
As I entered the lobby, a rather tough looking “gentleman,” for lack of a better word, walked up to me. I have no idea how he found out where we were staying. To this day, I don’t know who he was or what his affiliations were. However, as he came up beside me, he asked, in a very low voice, “Do you want me to take care of Pat Quinn?” It was kind of a scary moment because the look in his eyes and his general demeanor made me think the guy meant to do some serious damage.
I looked back at him and said, “No thanks… I’ll take care of it myself.” He walked away and that was the end of it. I never saw him again after that night, but it’s an episode I will never forget.
QUINN STEAMROLLS ORR: BOSTON – APR. 2, 1969.
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