“Neither am I overly concerned about the up-coming California trek against three of the NHL’s best clubs: Anaheim, San Jose and Los Angeles. Given that Leafs tend to play up or down to the level of opposition, the western-USA swing will provide a terrific chance to match goods with the caliber of team they must conquer to enjoy a lengthy playoff run. Either the club is good enough, or it isn’t. We’ll find out more next week.”
— From a column here, Mar. 4, 2014.
By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Mar. 11) – If you’ll pardon my immodesty, the above passage was written in this corner one week ago today. Of course, I could handily edit the reminder if the Maple Leafs get demolished in San Jose (tonight) and Los Angeles (on Thursday) – the DELETE button is right there, at the top of my keyboard.
But, I’m not anticipating a revision.
Not only did the Maple Leafs march into Honda Center last night and upend the National Hockey League’s second-best club (St. Louis has overtaken Anaheim for first place – also not a surprise here), the Leafs extended a romp that is close to matching the best in franchise history.
Toronto is 14-3-3 in its past 20 games, dating to Jan. 12. Yes, a point is awarded for losing in extra time today, which was not the case prior to 1999-2000. So, results have been moderately distorted. But, the Leafs have rarely gobbled up 31 of 40 points at a juncture of any season.
AS IT TURNED OUT, RYAN GETZLAF OF ANAHEIM DIDN’T HAVE MUCH TO SMILE ABOUT LAST NIGHT AT HONDA CENTER, EVEN THOUGH HE APPEARED TO BE CHUCKLING AT TYLER BOZAK BEFORE A FACE-OFF. BOZAK OPENED THE SCORING IN A 3-1 MAPLE LEAF VICTORY OVER THE DUCKS. DEBORA ROBINSON GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
As indicated here several times, the club record for most games without a regulation loss is 16 (14-0-2) – from Nov. 22 to Dec. 26, 2003.
Shoot-outs had not yet been adopted and ties were still in effect after five minutes of scoreless overtime. During that streak under Pat Quinn, Leafs won 13 games in regulation and one in overtime. They lost one in overtime and played to a 2-2 draw at Washington. The Maple Leafs’ media guide does not recognize the 14-0-2 run. It lists 11 games as “longest undefeated streak” – 8-0-3 from Oct. 15 to Nov. 8, 1950 and 7-0-4 from Jan. 6 to Feb. 1, 1994. Technically, this is accurate because the Leafs did “lose” in O.T. to St. Louis at Air Canada Centre on Dec. 9, 2003. The 1950 and 1994 streaks included only wins and ties.
Any way you slice it, however, the 14-3-3 mark today ranks with the best-ever 20-game eruptions:
• Leafs were also 14-3-3 from Oct. 15 to Nov. 26, 1950 as part of a 16-3-6 record over 25 games.
• With Doug Gilmour leading the way, Leafs were 15-3-2 from Feb. 11 to Mar. 25, 1993, just prior to their magical 21-game playoff run.
• Leafs began the 1993-94 season with a 14-2-4 mark in 20 games, having established a league record with 10 victories out of the gate.
• Later in 1993-94 – between Jan. 6 and Feb. 23 – Leafs put together a 12-4-4 streak. Again, the club went three rounds in the playoffs.
• During the last season of the six-team NHL in which Leafs finished first (1962-63), the club went 12-4-4 in 20 games from Jan. 27 to Mar. 17. Toronto won its second of three straight Stanley Cup titles that spring.
• Leafs began the 1977-78 season with a 12-5-3 record.
• Later in 1977-78 – between Jan. 14 and Mar. 5 – Leafs were 11-3-6 in 20 games under rookie coach Roger Neilson.
As you can see, the current 14-3-3 sprint has the Blue and White in elite company. It has also lifted the club into third place the Eastern Conference with 78 points (35-23-8), behind only Pittsburgh and Boston. Leafs are doing it partially with smoke and mirrors, as the team is minus-3 (196-199) in goals for/goals against ratio. Pittsburgh, by comparison, is plus-45; Boston, plus-61. Still, Toronto sits in automatic playoff territory at the moment – second in the Atlantic Division and seven points ahead of the last wild-card entry. That’s why I implored Leaf zealots – one week ago today – to “try and relax.” The post-Olympic stretch of three winless games was merely a bump in the road.
Analogous to Toronto’s 20-game outbreak is Phil Kessel sitting No. 2 in league scoring today with 73 points, behind only Sidney Crosby. No Leaf player has finished so loftily since Gaye Stewart in 1945-46. More recently, Darryl Sittler placed third (behind Guy Lafleur and Bryan Trottier) in 1977-78. So, Fast Phil is also in big-time company.
After last night’s regulation win at Anaheim, a .500 western-USA trip is well within reach. Leafs need just a point in games at San Jose and Los Angeles. Almost nothing seems beyond the scope of Randy Carlyle and Co. right now. And, when was the last time you read such a thing?
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