By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Jan. 23) – Perhaps Phil Kessel should quickly change his jersey number from 81 to 14. Playing as well as he is, symmetry with our calendar year could be a terrific omen. All we must do is reflect to 21 years ago when Doug Gilmour – wearing No. 93 – nearly led Maple Leafs to the Stanley Cup final.
If it were only that easy.
Whispers of 93 in ’93 have cropped up on-line and in my email box the past few days, concurrent with the Maple Leafs six-game win streak – on the line tonight at the American Airlines Center in Dallas. While bagging 12 immeasurable points in 10 nights, Leafs equaled their output from a 26-night, 15-game span between Nov. 23 and Dec. 19. Quite a spectacular reversal. But, let’s not get carried away, just yet, with comparisons to the 1992-93 Leafs, which came closest to playing for the Stanley Cup of any team since the champion of 1967. There are still a few trees and bushes to negotiate before this club is out of the woods.
For those unaware, or needing reminder, the ’92-93 Maple Leafs were rather spartan until just after Christmas, when the team caught the proverbial fire-in-a-bottle. A dreadful span of 3-9-3 between Nov. 21 and Dec. 26 yielded no indication of prosperity to come. But, a 6-3 triumph in St. Louis on Dec. 27 began a remarkable turnaround that led to a 31-13-6 record for the remainder of the schedule. Leafs set a franchise mark with 99 points and Gilmour finished second to Mario Lemieux in voting for the Hart Trophy – smashing club records that remain today for assists (95) and points (127). Prior to the final home game of the season, Gilmour accepted the Molson Cup for most Three Star honors and told an appreciative crowd at Maple Leaf Gardens, “We’re going to do something special for you in the playoffs.” Choice words, indeed.
THOUGH MAPLE LEAFS HAVE FASHIONED THEIR LONGEST WIN STREAK IN MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS, IT IS STILL PREMATURE TO EVOKE MEMORIES OF THE 1992-93 CLUB – LED BY DOUG GILMOUR (ABOVE) – THAT MADE IT TO WITHIN ONE GAME OF PLAYING FOR THE STANLEY CUP. GILMOUR HAD 95 ASSISTS AND 127 POINTS THAT SEASON.
Gilmour’s claim seemed laughable after the first two games of the Stanley Cup tournament, when Leafs were manhandled by the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena. What followed, though, has been liberally documented through the years: 21 playoff encounters in 42 nights that ended with defeat in Game 7 of the Cup semifinals to Wayne Gretzky and Los Angeles Kings. In 2002, Leafs made it to Game 6 of the semis before losing to Carolina. Since 1967, only the ’93 team has come within a game of playing for the National Hockey League championship.
That is why a six-game win streak in mid-January of this year has suddenly evoked memories of ’93. But, do the Leafs have a Doug Gilmour? When amid one of his goal-scoring dashes, Kessel can carry the Leafs the way Gilmour did. Can Fast Phil do it, however, over a span of five months, ala Gilmour in ’93? Or, is he likely to experience at least one drought, and possibly more, along the way? Evidence, to this point, clearly favors the latter but given the long-term commitment made to him early in the season, Kessel absolutely must lift his game to a Gilmour-type level if Leafs are going to win the Stanley Cup in his prime.
Another Leaf accomplishment passed the one-decade mark just prior to the New Year and it’s a monumental streak I remember covering for The FAN-590. Between Nov. 22 and Dec. 26 of 2003, Leafs compiled a 14-0-2 record in 16 games under Pat Quinn for the longest undefeated stretch in franchise history. To add perspective, the current Maple Leafs have to remain unbeaten over their next 10 games (8-0-2) to match the record. Obviously, no simple task. The 2003-04 club went on to register 103 points in the regular season – also a franchise mark that persists.
So, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. A 12-point gain in the standings has done wonders for the Maple Leafs – lifting them well beyond the Wild Card terminator in the Eastern Conference and very much in contention for one of three guaranteed playoff berths in the Atlantic Division. But, the tough, post-Olympic grind in March and April will determine the Leafs’ fate, as it will most others in the NHL. One terrific stretch in mid-January is not enough to elicit 1993 comparisons.
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