The “Toronto Collapse” – Part 4

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Aug. 15) – If you live in this city and look up the word “collapse” in the dictionary, the subliminal mind imagines a blue-and-white Maple Leafs logo. The reason is simple: While other Toronto teams suffer acute collapses – during the span of a week or in a particularly important game – the Leafs have chronically plummeted for nearly half-a-century.

It adds up to the longest current Stanley Cup drought: 46 seasons and counting since the night of May 2, 1967.

The collapses within the collapse have often been spectacular – occurring even in moments of relative prosperity. To name them all would fill a book – and that may happen one day. With brevity therefore in mind, only those in the truly wondrous category will be cited here.

CAN’T BEAT THE NEWBIES

The long-term collapse began in 1967-68, with the Leafs as defending champs and the National Hockey League having doubled to 12 teams. The NHL schedule that year was increased from 70 to 74 games. The six pre-expansion teams (Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, New York Rangers and Toronto) were grouped in the East Division; the new teams (California, Los Angeles Minnesota, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and St. Louis) in the West Division. Games were played primarily within each Division; the East and West teams facing one another only four times – two at home and two on the road. The expansion clubs were comprised largely of minor-leaguers that couldn’t make it in the six-team NHL. The existing clubs, therefore, had substantial leverage in head-to-head encounters. All existing clubs, that is, except for the Maple Leafs.

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A GAME IN 1967-68 – THE FIRST YEAR OF EXPANSION – BETWEEN PITTSBURGH AND TORONTO AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS. LEAFS FORWARD PETER STEMKOWSKI IS BEING CHECKED BY PENGUINS DEFENSEMAN AL MacNEIL IN FRONT OF GOALIE LES BINKLEY.

In their 24 bouts with the fledgling expansionists, the Leafs compiled an odious mark of 10-11-3 – by far the worst among established teams. This included a six-game winless streak (0-5-1) between Jan. 24 and Feb. 21, 1968. “We are doing more for expansion than anybody in the world,” groused general manager and coach Punch Imlach after a 2-1 loss – Nov. 11, 1967 – to the North Stars in Bloomington, Minn. “And, believe me, I hate it. They should send us around the league if they want to make sure expansion is a success.” They did. And, it was.

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REGULAR-SEASON CRASHES

1995-96: Toward the end of the Doug Gilmour era – and following the lockout-shortened schedule the previous year – Leafs appeared to be in a good spot halfway through the season. A tidy 9-4-1 run had the club eight games over .500 (22-14-7) on Jan. 10, 1996. In the blink of an eye, however, it all unraveled. The Maple Leafs fell to 3-16-3 in 22 games between Jan. 11 and Mar. 3. After an eighth consecutive loss (3-0 at Colorado on Mar. 3), general manager Cliff Fletcher fired coach Pat Burns and replaced him with Nick Beverley. Leafs hung on to make the ’96 playoffs but were dismissed by St. Louis in the opening round.

2005-06: Same situation ten years later. Only this time, there would be no playoffs. A 6-1-0 streak between Dec. 23 and Jan. 6 had the Maple Leafs – coached by Pat Quinn – a healthy nine games over .500 (24-15-3) on Jan. 7, 2006. Defenseman Bryan McCabe then sustained a groin-muscle tear in Edmonton and the team fell apart. With McCabe (on pace for an 80-point season) out of the line-up, it lost seven consecutive games as part of a 3-13-2 nosedive that took it out of playoff contention. A 10-game unbeaten streak in front of lights-out goalie Jean-Sebastien Aubin in the dying weeks dressed up the Leafs final mark (41-33-8) but it began a club-record seven-season playoff absence.

2011-12: This one should still be fresh in the memory bank. A mid-season surge of 10-4-1 (Jan. 3 to Feb. 6) had the Leafs in the conversation for home-ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. Enter the “Toronto Collapse.” A 1-9-1 pratfall (Feb. 7-29) ended all post-season talk for a seventh consecutive year and spelled the end of Ron Wilson as coach. After a 5-4 loss to Chicago at the United Center on Leap Year Day, GM Brian Burke replaced Wilson with Randy Carlyle. 

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TOP-LEFT: NICK BEVERLEY AND JOHN FERGUSON IN VANCOUVER, APRIL 2012. NICK COULDN’T COAX LEAFS BEYOND THE OPENING ROUND OF THE 1996 PLAYOFFS AFTER REPLACING, AS COACH, THE BELEAGUERED PAT BURNS. AND GM FERGUSON FIRED PAT QUINN AFTER A MID-SEASON TAILSPIN IN 2005-06 TOOK THE LEAFS OUT OF PLAYOFF CONTENTION. TOP-RIGHT: MY PHOTO OF RON WILSON’S LAST MEDIA SCRUM AS COACH OF THE BLUE-AND-WHITE – AT THE UNITED CENTER IN CHICAGO, FEB. 29, 2012.

2013-14: Need we remind you? A near-historic (team) outburst of 14-3-3 between Jan. 12 and Mar. 10 (interrupted by the Sochi Winter Olympics) had the Maple Leafs one point up on Montreal and one point behind Tampa Bay for second place in the Northeast Division. Then, Carlyle disastrously allowed goalie Jonathan Bernier to decide whether he’d start at Los Angeles against his former team, Mar. 13. Though hobbling with a groin-strain, Bernier naturally accepted the assignment. He lasted one period and missed the next five games. The Maple Leafs dropped them all as part of an eight-game losing streak and 2-12-0 face-plant that ended all hope of a playoff berth.

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LOS ANGELES KINGS CELEBRATE FIRST-PERIOD GOAL AT STAPLES CENTER (MAR. 13, 2014) IN A GAME JOHNATHAN BERNIER SHOULD NEVER HAVE BEEN ALLOWED TO START. IT BEGAN THE LATEST VERSION OF THE “TORONTO COLLAPSE.”

ACUTE COLLAPSES: 1993 / 1994

These fold-ups – happening quickly and calamitously – hurt the most for fans of the Maple Leafs, as they occurred in the Stanley Cup semifinals with the best Toronto teams since 1967. On May 27, 1993, Leafs were one victory away from winning the Campbell Conference championship over Los Angeles and hooking up with Montreal in the Cup final. But, a now-legendary missed call by referee Kerry Fraser allowed Wayne Gretzky to stay in Game 6 at the Great Western Forum. No. 99 popped the overtime winner past Felix Potvin, setting up a seventh and deciding match two nights later at Maple Leaf Gardens. A scintillating, back-and-forth affair was deadlocked 3-3 until Mike Donnelly (16:09) and Gretzky (16:46) scored late in the third period. L.A. won the game, 5-4.

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NOT MEANT TO BE: TORONTO STAR SPORTS HEADLINE OF MAY 27, 1993 PRIOR TO GAME 6 OF THE LEAFS-KINGS CONFERENCE FINAL IN LOS ANGELES.

Leafs again made it to the Conference final in 1994 – against Vancouver Canucks – in a 2-3-2 playoff format. The teams split the first two games at Maple Leaf Gardens and headed west for the middle three encounters. Vancouver won Games 3 and 4 at the Pacific Coliseum but the Leafs – facing elimination – bolted to a 3-0 first-period lead in Game 5. The “Toronto Collapse” reared its ugly head once again, as the Canucks roared back to tie the game in the third period before Greg Adams eliminated the visitors with an overtime marker.        

CAN’T HANDLE PROSPERITY

In the 19 seasons between 1976-77 and 1994-95 – the latter condensed to 48 games by a labor dispute – the Leafs missed the playoffs only four times. Of course, in the 21-team NHL of the 80’s, 16 qualified for the post-season. As such, you could make the playoffs with a 21-49-10 record for 52 points, as the Leafs did in 1987-88. That accumulation today would leave a club 40 points shy of the Stanley Cup tournament.

Between 1977 and 1995, the Leafs accomplished quite a feat. On three occasions, the club won the first two games of a best-of-seven series on the road… and lost all three. Collapsing, therefore, became a way of life for our bedeviled hockey team. A pictorial scrapbook review:

PLAYOFF COLLAPSE OF 1977

For a third consecutive spring, Toronto and Philadelphia hooked up in a best-of-seven quarterfinal. Flyers had won the first two series – a four-game sweep in 1975 en route to their second Stanley Cup and a much-tougher seven-game triumph in 1976, during which the home team was undefeated. As with the first two series, the third began at the Philadelphia Spectrum, where the Maple Leafs hadn’t prevailed since Dec. 19, 1971. It was therefore startling when the visitors collared the opening two matches – 3-2 and 4-1. History indicates – and you will see, below – that Toronto should have swept the Flyers in Games 3 and 4 at Maple Leaf Gardens. Instead, the club disintegrated and lost four in a row after the eyebrow-raising start in Philadelphia. Coach Red Kelly took the bullet and was replaced in the summer of ’77 by Roger Neilson.

GAME 1: TORONTO 3 at PHILADELPHIA 2

Leafs shocked the Spectrum crowd by bolting to a 3-0 lead before nine minutes had been played and then held on for a one-goal victory.

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GAME 2: TORONTO 4 at PHILADELPHIA 1

It took a bit longer – until 0:37 of the second period – for Leafs to build another 3-0 lead but the result was incredibly the same.

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GAME 3: PHILADELPHIA 4 at TORONTO 3 (OT)

Leafs had the lead in the final minute of regulation but a backhand clearing attempt by Borje Salming was gloved down by Rick MacLeish, who promptly fired the puck past Mike Palmateer with 38 seconds left. MacLeish then won the game at 2:55 of overtime.

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GAME 4: PHILADELPHIA 6 at TORONTO 5 (OT)

Oh my. Collapse with a capital ‘C’. Paced by Lanny McDonald’s four goals, Leafs had a stranglehold on the Flyers – leading 5-2 with 7:16 to play. But, Philly scored three times in a 4:16 span: Bobby Clarke tying the game with 1:33 left. Reggie Leach won it at 19:10 of overtime. 

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GAME 5: TORONTO 0 at PHILADELPHIA 2

An easy win for the Flyers against the dispirited Leafs – Reg Leach scoring both goals. First home-ice victory of the series.

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GAME 6: PHILADELPHIA 4 at TORONTO 3

Fittingly, the Flyers took the series by overcoming a deficit in the third period. Lanny McDonald provided the Leafs a 3-2 lead at 5:06. But, MacLeish tied it 2:31 later and defenseman Jim Watson won the game with 2:38 left in regulation. Collapse complete.

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PLAYOFF COLLAPSE OF 1987

Ten years after blowing a near-sweep of Philadelphia, the Maple Leafs were a sub-.500 team (32-42-6 – 70 points) that qualified for the playoffs only because five of 21 teams could fail to qualify. A six-game upset of St. Louis in the opening round energized the Leafs, who went into Detroit to begin Round 2 and absolutely throttled the favored Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena. An overtime victory at home in Game 4 provided the Leafs a 3-1 series lead before the “Toronto Collapse” kicked in.

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Toronto’s 4-2 victory in the opener theoretically usurped home-ice advantage from the Red Wings. When the visitors followed with a 7-2 thumping in Game 2, an appearance in the Stanley Cup semifinals seemed likely. But, we should have known better.

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The Red Wings rebounded with a 4-2 victory in Game 3 at Maple Leaf Gardens, but Mike Allison’s wrap-around goal (above) at 9:31 of overtime in Game 4 restored the Leafs two-game lead. Then came the “Toronto Collapse.” Leafs spectacularly dropped the final three games of the series – getting blanked twice and out-scored 10-2.

PLAYOFF COLLAPSE OF 1995

The Maple Leafs were a middling outfit in the lockout-abbreviated schedule of January-May 1995, finishing with a 21-19-8 record for 50 points. An over-utilized Doug Gilmour – hampered by two sore feet – had lost much of his playmaking magic. But, the team came alive at the brand new United Center in Games 1 and 2 of the opening playoff round, grabbing a 2-0 series lead by out-scoring Chicago 8-3. Sound familiar? Once back on home ice, the “Toronto Collapse” began anew.

GAME 1: TORONTO 5 at CHICAGO 3 – May 7, 1995

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GAME 2: TORONTO 3 at CHICAGO 0 – May 9, 1995

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GAME 3: CHICAGO 3 at TORONTO 2 – May 11, 1995

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GAME 4: CHICAGO 3 at TORONTO 1 – May 13, 1995

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GAME 5: TORONTO 2 at CHICAGO 4 – May 15, 1995

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GAME 6: CHICAGO 4 at TORONTO 5 (OT) – May 17, 1995

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GAME 7: TORONTO 2 at CHICAGO 5 – May 19, 1995

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THE BIGGEST COLLAPSE

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          TD GARDEN – BOSTON – MAY 13, 2013

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In hindsight – and given the content of this blog – perhaps the night of May 13, 2013 was pre-ordained so that the current generation of Leaf followers could experience the post-1967 trend. It happened in all its gory with the biggest playoff crash in team history. You all know the details: Maple Leafs were up 4-1 on the Bruins in Boston with 10:42 to play and were primed for a second-round series with the New York Rangers. Then, the ground beneath them began to give way.

Nathan Horton scored at 9:18 – Toronto 4 Boston 2.

Milan Lucic scored at 18:38 – Toronto 4 Boston 3.

Patrice Bergeron scored at 19:09 – Toronto 4 Boston 4.

Patrice Bergeron scored at 6:05 of OT – Toronto 4 Boston 5.

There was utter disbe-LEAF – that night and the next morning:

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MEANWHILE, DOWN THE PIKE…

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In the realm of professional sport, there may be a city that can feel sorry for itself to a greater degree than Toronto. And, coincidentally, it’s the sports city closest to Toronto. We take you diagonally across Lake Ontario – northwest to southeast – and find my long-time pal (and Sabres beat-writer) Mike Harrington. With tissue in hand, Mike rhymes off one debacle after another on behalf of the tormented souls of Buffalo.

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By MIKE HARRINGTON Buffalo News

We start with Wide Right and No Goal. Anybody in Buffalo can do that. Most people who don’t live in Buffalo probably can, too. And, I don’t think we need to add any details.

But, there’s plenty more.

SUPER BOWLS

There was actually Wide Right (Norwood in XXV vs. New York Giants); Lost Helmet (Thurman Thomas at start of XXVI vs. Washington); Nine Turnovers (vs. Dallas XXVII in 52-17 fiasco) and Fumble Return (30-13 loss vs. Dallas in XXVIII – 24-0 blowout in the second half that started when Thomas fumbled and James Washington ran it back for a touchdown).

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OUCH! SCOTT NORWOOD SLICES 47-YARD FIELD GOAL ATTEMPT “WIDE RIGHT” WITH EIGHT SECONDS LEFT IN SUPER BOWL XXV AT TAMPA STADIUM (JAN. 27, 1991). THE BILLS LOSE 20-19 TO THE NEW YORK GIANTS.

MORE BILLS

? They would have given Green Bay a much better game in Super Bowl I, as the theory goes, but they lost at home, 31-7, to Kansas City in the AFL Championship Game of 1967 after winning it the previous two years. It took them 24 more years to actually make the Super Bowl.

? Plenty of people think they would have gone in 1980 but Joe Ferguson sprained an ankle and could barely stand during the second half of a playoff game in San Diego. A 14-3 lead turned into a 20-14 loss on a 50-yard touchdown pass to Ron Smith with 2:08 left. Safety Bill Simpson still hasn’t laid a hand on the guy.

? How about the 1981 playoff loss at Cincinnati? 28-21. Driving for the tying score in the final two minutes. First-down pass to Lou Piccone. Flag. Delay of game. Delay of game? They weren’t superimposing the play clock on the field back then. Nobody really knows.

? How about Ronnie Harmon? Maybe the four Super Bowls in a row would have been five had he not dropped Jim Kelly’s sure touchdown pass with eight seconds left in a 34-30 playoff loss in Cleveland in 1989. In Buffalo, when you “Harmon” the ball, you’ve short-armed a catch.

? I give you Ronnie Harmon and all the Super Bowls and I’ll raise you Home Run Throwback. That was Tennessee’s miracle lateral toss kickoff return in the final 10 seconds that beat the Bills in the 2000 playoffs. Was it a lateral or an illegal forward pass? Depends on what team colors you’re wearing. Who else would lose a PLAYOFF GAME like that? And it’s a real curse. Not a single playoff game since.

SABRES

Aside from No Goal (which would be a good goal, for the record, any other season except 1998-99), I submit two real gut-checks:

1993 Eastern Quarterfinals:  Pat LaFontaine (148 points) and Alexander Mogilny (76 goals) were either injured or hampered in the series against Montreal. Buffalo got swept, losing all four games by one goal and three in overtime. The Habs, of course, won the Cup. Many people here think a healthy Sabres team, which had just swept the Bruins in the “May Day!” game and anointed Hasek in goal, had a real chance.

Game 7, 2006 Eastern Conference Final: The Sabres, and not Carolina and certainly not Edmonton, were the best team in the NHL that spring. But they kept losing defenseman. Teppo Numminen and Henrik Tallinder got hurt. Then Jay McKee came down with some sort of leg staph infection the morning of the deciding game in the Eastern Conference final at Raleigh and couldn’t play either. Nathan Paetsch made his NHL debut — his NHL debut!! — in Game 7 and guys named Jeff Jillson and Doug Janik were playing defense too. Janik even scored a goal and the Sabres led, 2-1, after two periods. They lost 4-2 and the final goal was the first real Game 7 magic moment for Justin Williams.

HOW ABOUT THE (NBA) BRAVES?

Remember, they once played a few games in Maple Leaf Gardens (which makes oldtimers want to ask the Raptors for a game or two in Buffalo. Not happening. Modern-day NBA economics).

One of the worst moments in Buffalo sports history was Game 6 of the 1974 NBA playoffs at the Aud. Trailing the Celtics, 3-2, the Braves rallied from double digits down to tie. But a cheap-cheap-cheap foul call by Darrell Garretson on Bob McAdoo put Jo Jo White at the line for two free throws with no time left and the Celtics won, 106-104.

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SUPERSTAR BOB McADOO OF THE OLD BUFFALO BRAVES.

It starts at 2:42 of this clip – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eDaKVCXEiXE. Watch it. In a tie game in the playoffs, would that EVER be called today that far from the basket? No chance. None.

EVEN THE (BASEBALL) BISONS

We’ve found some solace in Triple-A baseball, with the Bisons winning league championships in 1997, 1998 and 2004. But there’s been incredible heartbreak there, too.

Check out these gut-wrenchers:

1990: In a one-game tiebreaker to decide the American Association East, the Bisons lost to Nashville 4-3 — in 18 innings! Imagine. After 146 games, it took five hours and eight minutes more.

1991: The Bisons actually won the division and advanced to play Denver in the Association finals — after losing to the city in the expansion derby three months earlier. Buffalo won the first two games at home but lost all three in Denver to drop the series. But Game 4. Good Lord…

Down 9-0 heading to the top of the ninth — and being no-hit by former Cardinal Greg Mathews — the Bisons scored six runs and had the bases loaded with two out. Greg Tubbs doubled into the left-field corner and announcer Pete Weber famously called “the tying run will score.” But two perfect relays and a controversial call at the plate ruled pinch-runner Greg Edge out and Buffalo lost, 9-8. If it had happened in the big leagues, they would have written books about it.

2001: Game 5 of the International League semifinals. Again at home like 1990. Lost to Scranton, 6-2, in 19 innings!!! Took 5:13. The two longest games in Coca-Cola Field history in time and innings were season-ending killers. Crazy. This one had life significance. It was on Sept. 9, 2001. I would have been with the team in Louisville to open the IL final the next night. Then Sept. 11 happened. After two days off, the league canceled the series and it would have been a long drive home — with no flights — from Louisville through a much different world.

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COCA COLA FIELD IN DOWNTOWN BUFFALO JOE CASCIO PHOTO

2005: Ninth time in playoffs in 11 years as a Cleveland affiliate. Won first two games of IL semi at Indy — then dropped three straight at home to lose the series. Haven’t been to playoffs since. Not looking good either in Year 2 as the Toronto Blue Jays Triple-A affiliate.

CAN’T FORGET COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Buffalo’s four Division I programs (University of Buffalo, Canisius, Niagara, St. Bonaventure) haven’t won a single main-draw game in the NCAA Tournament since 1970 (Niagara won a play-in game against Florida A&M in 2007).

Fans here think it’s the Curse of the Wounded Knee.

Bob Lanier, Buffalo native and future Hall of Famer, was on the floor near the end of St. Bonaventure’s victory over Villanova in the East Regional final. Ford undercut Lanier’s knee and the resulting injury kept the Bonaventure star out of the Final Four the next weekend. It was a down UCLA team. Well, as down as they could be back then but it was the bridge year between Lew Alcindor (now Kareem-Abdul Jabbar) and Bill Walton. Many people here think Bonaventure would have won the national championship with Lanier. Without him, they lost to Jacksonville and New Mexico State and finish fourth.

That should take care of you. I need a beer. Canadian, please.

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Here in Toronto, we feel your pain, Mike.

Constantly.

FULL BLOG SERIES:

THE TORONTO COLLAPSE PART 1: http://bit.ly/1oS4O3M

THE TORONTO COLLAPSE PART 2: http://bit.ly/1wMrBCr

THE TORONTO COLLAPSE PART 3: http://bit.ly/1p8pzLu

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