Leafs WILL Make the Playoffs (if…)

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Mar. 27) – I ain’t changin’ my tune.

Toronto Maple Leafs’ very good season began to unravel the night (Mar. 13) Randy Carlyle let Jonathan Bernier play injured at Los Angeles. You may disagree but the evidence is overwhelming – a sudden five-game losing streak without the club’s No. 1 goalie extended to six during a terrible performance by the entire team on the night of his return. My tune, however, dovetails nicely with today’s thought: That Leafs still can make the playoffs… if Bernier performs close to his level with a groin strain that will not be fully healed until next season.

That Bernier held up amid a bombardment (49 shots) by the St. Louis Blues Thursday night was an encouraging sign for the Maple Leafs. We’ll be able to further detect how his body responded if he’s in goal at least once over the weekend – Friday night at Philadelphia or Saturday at home to Detroit (Carlyle typically deploys each of his netminders in consecutive-night situations; it’s impossible to comprehend Bernier playing both matches). If, on the flip side, Bernier is hounded by the injury for the remaining games – he yielded a couple of softies Thursday night – or if the strain was aggravated by the gymnastics he had to perform against St. Louis, the Leafs are finished. As it was prior to; during and after Mar. 13, it is all about the team’s No. 1 goaltender.

PHOTO I TOOK OF MAPLE LEAFS GOALIE JONATHAN BERNIER FROM MY SEATS AT THE AIR CANADA CENTRE DURING THURSDAY NIGHT’S 5-3 LOSS TO ST. LOUIS BLUES.

A recent trend did vanish for 2½ hours on Thursday – that being the Maple Leafs faring generally well in front of Bernier. Don’t forget, the team was a scorching 14-3-3 after its western-USA journey two weeks ago. Of course, the opponent likely had much to do with Thursday’s dismal effort; St. Louis is a legitimate Stanley Cup threat and has made more than a few rivals look silly this season. A better indication should come on the weekend when the Leafs play games that are even more important – against teams closer to their level. If they look bad against the Flyers and Red Wings, we can turn out the lights on 2013-14.

Unquestionably, Leafs are up against it in the wild-card hunt. The points situation isn’t harrowing; Leafs are tied (80 points) with Columbus, Detroit and Washington. All three, however, have games in hand while Columbus and Washington won the season head-to-head series. Saturday night’s game against Detroit at Air Canada Centre is the final engagement with these teams and, by winning, Leafs can take the season set from the Red Wings. So, all is not lost. Given the streaky, no-middle-ground propensity of the Blue and White, a hot finish to the season – immediately after the club’s longest dry spell – would hardly be a shock. Leafs are the collective equivalent of Phil Kessel: Once they get going, they are difficult to stop. But, time is running out… quickly.

In the end, Leafs will have to make the playoffs the way they’ve gotten this far – with Bernier standing on his head. It still can happen.

MONTREAL at DETROIT 1966

Next in my series of NHL pages from the past is a program, more than 48 years old, from Detroit Olympia (image below) – where the Red Wings played between 1927 and 1979 before moving to Joe Louis Arena.

Located in a foreboding anex of downtown Detroit (intersection of Grand River Ave. and McGraw St.), the Olympia was not a place around which to take a stroll. Cab drivers were known to virtually drop people off in the front lobby before speeding away. Moments after a Toronto at Detroit game in January 1978, players and management of the Maple Leafs witnessed a police shootout in the Olympia parking lot from the team bus. The driver of the getaway car was killed.

More romantically, the Olympia was site of Gordie Howe’s remarkable career in the NHL (1946 to 1971 with the Red Wings) and of arguably the greatest one-season playoff team in Stanley Cup history – the 1952 edition – which swept Toronto and Montreal in eight games, allowing a total of five goals (Hall-of-Famer Terry Sawchuk was in net).

The program below is from a Montreal at Detroit game in 1965-66. The teams would meet in the Stanley Cup final that season – Canadiens winning in six games after losing the first two at home. Given it’s a program from MoTown, you will notice the number of automobile adds – and how the look of cars has changed over nearly half-a-century:

                     

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