Look For Middle Ground, Leaf Fans

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Jan. 21) – It is the most oft-repeated cliche in professional sport. You hear it from enlightened hockey players all the time: “Don’t get too high with the highs or too low with the lows.” A Bartlett quotation of irresistible merit.

Any bedraggled follower of the Toronto Maple Leafs will tell you how easy it is to convert theory to practice, given the black-and-white nature of the hockey club. There has been no middle ground for Maple Leaf fans this year – just agony and ecstasy. The latter is prevailing in all its glory with the team riding a season-high five-game win streak into the Pepsi Center tonight for a 9 p.m. (EST) clash with Colorado Avalanche. The former has similarly overcome Leafs Nation at least twice – most recently during a frightful four-game skid against New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Carolina and Washington in which Leafs were out-scored 21-7. You can therefore comprehend why the emotional state of Toronto hockey fandom resembles an active electrocardiogram.

At the moment, not-so-quiet confidence has resulted from banking the maximum 10 points in the past five games, with victories over New Jersey, Boston, Buffalo, Montreal and Phoenix. It has hoisted the Maple Leafs from one tier beneath playoff territory in the Eastern Conference to a comfortable-right-now five-point lead over Columbus Blue Jackets in the first Wild Card position. Leafs are also two points behind Montreal for the guaranteed third-place Stanley Cup berth in the Atlantic Division, though Canadiens have two games in hand. Potentially ominous is that Maple Leafs bring up the rear among current playoff teams in the East with 17 ROW’s (regulation-overtime wins) – a key factor in tie-breaking procedure. Canadiens have 24 ROW’s; the Blue Jackets 20.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS CELEBRATE THIRD-PERIOD GOAL BY NAZEM KADRI (43) ON MONDAY NIGHT IN GLENDALE AZ. IT PROVIDED THE VISITORS A 4-1 LEAD EN ROUTE TO A 4-2 VICTORY OVER PHOENIX COYOTES. NORM HALL GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

On the bright side for Leafs is Jonathan Bernier – a premium target for highs and lows among fans of the Blue and White this season. Just more than a week ago, he was running out of gas; unable to handle the work-load of a starting netminder in the NHL. Today, he is gold. As many in hockey expected – myself among them – Bernier has evolved into a legitimate No. 1 stopper; potentially the best the Maple Leafs have deployed since Hall-of-Famer Ed Belfour ten years ago (in 2003-04). All Bernier evidently needed was a chance to play the majority of games. Randy Carlyle, after fumbling with his goalie rotation for nearly three months, finally saw the light and entrusted Bernier with the No. 1 role for which he was purposely acquired last summer from Los Angeles Kings. His latest act of salvation occurred Monday night in Glendale AZ after the Maple Leafs had lost their legs with a 3-0 lead over the Phoenix Coyotes. Bernier was spectacular in the final 30 minutes, enabling his wobbly team to nurse the advantage and prevail, 4-2.

If Carlyle follows his season-long pattern for consecutive-night games, he’ll go with James Reimer tonight in Denver. During his remarkable debut with the Leafs in the latter half of the 2010-11 NHL season, Reimer backstopped the Blue and White to a 4-3 win at Colorado (Mar. 24, 2011) – the last time, prior to tonight, Leafs visited the Pepsi Center.

At the risk of raining on the Toronto hockey parade, it is inevitable the Maple Leafs will fall into a slumber once again this season – perhaps several of them. As mentioned, there has been no grey area for the hockey club in 2013-14; a pattern of lofty hills and steep valleys will therefore likely continue. That is why – against all odds – it is imperative for fans of the Blue and White to discover some middle ground of their own. In fact, sustained mental health and balance depends on it.

THE HOCKEY NEWS 1973-74

For those – like yours truly – who remember an expansion team winning the Stanley Cup for the first time, it’s hard to believe that nearly 40 years have passed since the Philadelphia Flyers’ milestone victory in 1974. I was 15 when the Flyers and Boston Bruins played for the Cup – won by Philly on home ice at The Spectrum in Game 6. As part of my continuing series of old publications, here are several covers of THE HOCKEY NEWS from late in the 1973-74 NHL season:

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