By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Feb. 9) – Golden sunsets, white-sandy beaches and exotic islands notwithstanding, if there’s a team in the National Hockey League that requires a 19-day break less than the Toronto Maple Leafs, please let me know.
Playing their best hockey at a meaningful part of the season in more than a decade, the Leafs now have to shut it down until Feb. 27, when pause for the Winter Olympics ends with a game in Uniondale, N.Y. Timing certainly isn’t optimum for the NHL’s third-hottest team over the past 10 games (trailing only Boston and St. Louis, my favorites for the Stanley Cup final in June). Leafs enter the break on an 11-2-1 tear – reminiscent of the club-record 14-0-2 unbeaten string in November and December 2003. Comfortably in a wild-card playoff spot by seven points over Columbus, the Leafs are very much in contention for second place in the Atlantic Division – tied in points with Montreal (70) and nipping at the heels of Tampa Bay (71). From a team perspective, the scheduled interruption of more than a fortnight is rather inopportune.
As any Leafs fan can tell you, the club has played some of its best hockey in “garbage time” since the lost season of 2004-05. Once any reasonable chance of making the playoffs (and its accompanying stress) went out the window, Leafs became world-beaters – generating counterfeit hope for the following year. This is altogether different, though Maple Leafs have to be kicking themselves for all the points wasted in November and December. Imagine where the team would be today had it not lapsed into an 8-12-5 funk between Nov. 2 and Dec. 17. Or the ghastly 0-4-0 week after the Bridgestone Winter Classic triumph in Ann Arbor, Mich. during which Maple Leafs were outscored, 21-7, by New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Carolina and Washington. That 8-16-5 blight has been largely offset by a tandem of hot streaks (in October and, now, since mid-January) during which Leafs have compiled a scintillating mark of 21-6-1 over one-third of the schedule.
DAVID CLARKSON (71) AND THE MAPLE LEAFS MADE LIFE MISERABLE FOR OLYMPIC-BOUND ROBERTO LUONGO SATURDAY NIGHT, SCORING THREE UNANSWERED GOALS IN THE THIRD PERIOD TO BEAT THE STAGGERING VANCOUVER CANUCKS, 3-1. TORONTO IS A SCINTILLATING 11-2-1 IN ITS PAST 14 GAMES. GRAIG ABEL GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
Still, there will be no time to relax after the Olympics.
Points must continue to be accrued at a fairly rapid clip if the Leafs plan on staying in contention for one of three guaranteed playoff berths in their division. And though Detroit and Columbus are six and seven points in arrears right now, each club has two games in hand on Toronto. A hot streak by one or both – and even a brief cold spell by the Maple Leafs – could alter the Eastern standings in a hurry.
Prior to this season – and for the sake of comparison – Leafs have only once been a strong club when NHL players competed in the Winter Olympics. That was in 2001-02, when the Blue and White, under Pat Quinn, compiled 100 points and finished second (by one point to Boston) in the Northeast Division. Quinn was head coach of Canada in Salt Lake City as our country broke a 50-year gold medal drought in men’s hockey. He then battled an irregular heart-beat while guiding Maple Leafs into the Stanley Cup semifinals, losing a six-game series to Carolina.
Maple Leafs played 58 games prior to the 2002 Olympics (two fewer than this season) and went into the break with a 31-18-9 mark for 71 points (compared to 32-22-6 for 70 points right now). Leafs came out of Salt Lake strongly with a 5-2-4 record in their first 11 games and were 12-7-5 in 24 post-Olympic encounters. For argument’s sake, let’s lop off one win and one loss from 2002. If Leafs can go 11-6-5 in their remaining 22 games this season, the club will finish at 43-28-11 for 97 points – a 17-point improvement over the 82-game schedule of 2011-12 and very much in line to finish second or third in the Atlantic Division.
That seems like a reasonable scenario, providing the Leafs do not sink into another quagmire. There is no indication of such right now, though it’s anyone’s guess how this untimely pause in the schedule will impact the Blue and White. Let the Games begin… and end, quickly.
1984 IN SARAJEVO
COVER OF THE HOCKEY NEWS (ABOVE) FROM 30 YEARS AGO THIS WEEK, AS AMATEUR PLAYERS WERE GETTING SET TO COMPETE AT THE 1984 WINTER OLYMPIC GAMES IN SARAJEVO, YUGOSLAVIA (AS IT WAS KNOWN). TEAM CANADA’S ROSTER (BELOW) INDICATES A NUMBER OF PLAYERS THAT WOULD GO ON TO THE NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE. IT WOULD BE THREE OLYMPICS AND 14 YEARS BEFORE NHLers WERE ALLOWED TO TAKE PART (1998, IN NAGANO, JAPAN).
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