By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Jan. 24) – For those that actually thought the Maple Leafs would sail into the Stanley Cup playoffs riding a 36-game win streak, Thursday night’s disaster in Dallas must have hit hard. Success, after all, is both addictive and intoxicating.
Now that reality has shown its ugly side again, the 7-1 face-plant at American Airlines Center is either a one-off or the beginning of yet another streak for this incredibly up-and-down team.
If it’s the former, Maple Leafs will bounce back strongly in Winnipeg on Saturday night. If the latter prevails, everything accomplished in the club’s six-game victory march – its longest since 2005 – will be invalidated; its playoff aspiration in jeopardy yet again.
Given the near-complete absence of middle ground with the 2013-14 Maple Leafs, anything is possible. Exceptional first periods and and a couple of Doug Gilmour-like performances by Phil Kessel enabled Leafs to pull out of a quagmire in the Eastern Conference. Though surpassed in playoff seeding by the unconscious Columbus Blue Jackets, winner of eight consecutively, life is still rather rosy for the Blue and White – sitting three points up on Philadelphia in the first wild-card position and tied in points (59) with Montreal for the guaranteed No. 3 playoff berth in the Atlantic Division, though the Canadiens have three games in hand.
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When the Maple Leafs decide not to show up for games, however, they do so spectacularly. Twice, this season, they have lost 7-1 – at Dallas on Thursday and at home to New York Rangers, Jan. 4. Columbus laid on a 6-0 whipping at Air Canada Centre, Nov. 25, though it may have been a harbinger for the surging Blue Jackets. A 4-0 rout in Vancouver, Nov. 2, could have been 10-0 if not for some early heroics from James Reimer. Same with a wildly flattering 6-3 loss in St. Louis, Dec. 12. And, who can forget the 6-1 debacle at Raleigh NC two weeks ago?
Yet, the same Maple Leafs clobbered the defending Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks, 7-3, at the ACC prior to Christmas; knocked off the NHL’s best team thus far – Anaheim – thanks to a Kessel hat-trick in October and crafted a regulation-time victory at Boston last week. So, who really knows what to expect when Leafs hit the ice?
Some have pointed to the Maple Leafs arduous schedule of late – nine games in 14 nights – but that shouldn’t provide much comfort. After the Sochi Winter Olympics, Leafs sprint to the wire with 22 games in 45 nights, a span that will determine the club’s playoff fate. Fatigue will not be a laudable excuse for any team on the bubble. Perseverance and some luck with injuries will rule the post-Olympic scramble.
Taking a night off, as the Leafs have done numerous times this year, will only contribute to the angst among hockey fans in this region.
GABBY WITH HAIR
LOVE THIS PHOTO OF SMILING BRUCE BOUDREAU AS CAPTAIN OF THE 1974-75 MEMORIAL CUP-CHAMPION TORONTO MARLBOROS. THIRTY-NINE YEARS LATER, “GABBY” – AS HE IS KNOWN THROUGHOUT THE HOCKEY WORLD – IS COACHING THE NHL’s BEST TEAM. HIS ANAHEIM DUCKS HAVE 81 POINTS – FIVE MORE THAN SECOND-PLACE CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS. SEATED TO BOUDREAU’S LEFT (ABOVE) ARE MAPLE LEAFS/MARLIES OWNER HAROLD BALLARD AND COACH GEORGE ARMSTRONG. TO GABBY’S IMMEDIATE RIGHT IS MARLIES GENERAL MANAGER FRANK BONELLO.
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