By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Dec. 16) — It hardly taxes the memory to recall that Randy Carlyle was a near–unanimous choice by pundits to be the first National Hockey League coach fired in 2014–15. I made it clear, in this corner, that Carlyle should have been replaced after last season.
Wrong (Paul MacLean / Dallas Eakins). And, very wrong (me).
As we speak (or write) — and as it pertains to the Leafs, we must always stay in the moment — Carlyle is not only still employed but very much among the early candidates for NHL coach–of–the–year. His Maple Leafs (18–9–3) have won five in a row; have lost only once in regulation time in their past 11 games and are five points removed from first place in the Eastern Conference. Put your hand up if you figured that to be the case in mid–December. Don’t be embarrassed. Neither did I.
MY PHOTO OF RANDY CARLYLE (ARMS FOLDED) NEXT TO ASSISTANT COACH STEVE SPOTT DURING SATURDAY NIGHT’S 4–1 VICTORY OVER DETROIT AT AIR CANADA CENTRE.
For the second time in less than a calendar year, Carlyle has the Maple Leafs performing at a near–historic pace. Though accumulation is slightly different in this era of the three–point game, the current 9–1–1 streak ranks with any 11–game segment in franchise history and is tied for the third–most points (19) in such a span. Consider the following:
? The club record for points in an 11–game stretch is 21. The Maple Leafs were 10–0–1 under Pat Quinn between Nov. 22 and Dec. 13, 2003 as part of a 14–0–2 run. This was technically not the longest undefeated streak in franchise history because a 3–2 overtime setback in St. Louis (Dec. 9) was considered a loss, though not recorded in the loss column. It was the last season in which ties were awarded after five scoreless minutes of overtime. The shootout came into being when the NHL re–emerged from the canceled season of 2004–05.
? Leafs have twice recorded 20 points in 11 games. From Dec. 9, 1970 to Jan. 2, 1971, as part of a remarkable 13–1–2 stretch under John McLellan, the club went 10–1–0. The Jan. 2 triumph at Maple Leaf Gardens was a 13–0 decimation of Detroit — still the biggest victory margin in team history. At the start of 1993–94, the Leafs established a club (and then–NHL) mark by winning their first 10 games under Pat Burns. A 5–2 loss at Montreal in Game 11 dropped the Leafs to 10–1–0.
? Only six times in the past 64 years (including the current streak) have the Leafs rung up 19 points in 11 games:
OCT. 15 — NOV. 8, 1950. After losing the season–opener to Chicago at Maple Leaf Gardens, the club rolled to an 8–0–3 mark for longest undefeated streak in franchise history and went on to capture its fourth Stanley Cup in five years. That undefeated mark, less the point total, was matched between Jan. 6 and Feb. 1, 1994 (7–0–4).
FEB. 12 — MAR. 8, 1967. This occurred after the Leafs had famously lost 10 consecutive games under Punch Imlach during the season in which they would last win the Stanley Cup. A 4–4 tie against Chicago at Maple Leaf Gardens on Feb. 11 finally ended the streak. Imlach was then admitted to hospital suffering from stress. With the much–easier–going King Clancy behind the bench, Leafs rescued their playoff hopes with a seven–game win streak as part of a 9–1–3 romp.
THE 1966–67 TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS, CAPTAINED BY GEORGE ARMSTRONG, WOULDN’T HAVE MADE THE PLAYOFFS — LET ALONE WON THE STANLEY CUP — IF NOT FOR A 9–1–3 BOUNCE–BACK FROM A 10–GAME LOSING STREAK IN JANUARY AND FEBRUARY OF THAT SEASON. HAROLD BARKLEY ARCHIVE
JAN. 30 — FEB. 21, 1971. The Leafs only loss in a 9–1–1 streak was to Phil Esposito, Bobby Orr and the Boston Bruins: 5–1 on Feb. 14, a Sunday afternoon, at Maple Leaf Gardens. Leafs had demolished the purple–clad Los Angeles Kings, 8-1, the previous night on Carlton St.
FEB. 11 — MAR. 3, 1993. A 9–1–1 eruption occurred with Doug Gilmour sparkling en route to a 95–assist, 127–point season (both Leaf records).
JAN. 12 — FEB. 1, 2014. Maple Leaf fans remember this, somewhat morosely, as part of a dazzling 14–3–3 breakout between Jan. 12 and Mar. 1 of last season. The club went 9–1–1 for 19 points from Jan. 12 to Feb. 1. Soon after came the playoff–killing 2–12–0 collapse.
And, therein lies the mandatory disclaimer.
Though the Maple Leafs, and Carlyle, are full value for bouncing back remarkably from a 9–2 pummeling by Nashville at Air Canada Centre on Nov. 18 — and as I wrote several times prior to the season — they will ultimately be gauged on their performance (or lack thereof) in the final month of the schedule. This is only fair given the club’s propensity to fold… either chronically (late in the season) or acutely (in the final 12 minutes of Game 7 at Boston) in each of the past three years.
Can the Leafs respond to a crisis in March or will a three–game slide evolve into another season–killing debacle?
As of today, Leafs are solidly in the No. 1 Wild Card position in the Eastern Conference — seven points up on the New York Rangers, Florida and Boston (gasp!). The Leafs and Bruins have each played 30 games; the Rangers and Panthers, 28. But, Toronto held the same apparently–comfortable margin much later in the schedule a year ago and still managed to miss the playoffs by a whopping nine points.
So, let’s reserve judgement on the 2014–15 Maple Leafs.
At the same time, let’s admire Carlyle for his performance and grace under pressure. The veteran coach has been quite a revelation to me. His oft–dormant sense of humor has easily prevailed over the crankiness we’re more accustomed to and his players have clearly responded.
Comedic timing was never better for Carlyle than after James Reimer stole two points at Detroit last Wednesday. When questioned about Reimer’s effort, Carlyle grinned and replied “just okay” — nearly convulsing a gaggle of reporters at Joe Louis Arena. It was the same line (delivered far–more stoically) at the same venue after a 3–2 loss to the Red Wings last Mar. 18 that brought fans and media down on the coach, figuring he had tossed his No. 2 goalie under the proverbial bus.
JAMES REIMER BACKED THE LEAFS TO A SHOOTOUT WIN OVER LOS ANGELES ON SUNDAY NIGHT AT AIR CANADA CENTRE. GRAIG ABEL GETTY IMASGES/NHL.COM
Stripped of his chosen assistants, Carlyle has thus far made a splendid transition to Peter Horacek and Steve Spott — one a former head coach in the NHL; the other, doubtlessly, a future coach. Boosted by what appears to be a genuine upgrade among third and fourth–line forwards (Mike Santorelli, Daniel Winnick, Peter Holland, Richard Panik and the injured Leo Komarov have been terrific), Carlyle has perfectly integrated his new charges. And, for that, general manager David Nonis merits commensurate due. He improved the club where he reasonably could last summer while following the plan to retain young players and draft picks. After 30 games, Nonis appears to have done a marvelous job.
The hot streaks under Carlyle this year and last occurred not coincidentally, in my view, after he stopped dithering and settled on Jonathan Bernier as his No. 1 goalie. It is a measure of Reimer’s worth that he has performed so strongly in two of the past three games after sitting for eight consecutively and not appearing between Nov. 18 and Dec. 10. Right now, Leafs are very strong between the pipes.
But, we all understand there’s a long way to go.
LEAFS — DETROIT ON SATURDAY NIGHT
Another eight of my NIKON images from the Maple Leafs 4–1 victory over the Red Wings at Air Canada Centre:
WIDE SHOT FROM SEC. 304, ROW 3.
LEAFS AND WINGS DON’T LIKE ONE ANOTHER.
PRESS ROW — HIGH ABOVE SOUTH SIDE OF THE ARENA.
MIKE BABCOCK WORE A GRIMACE THROUGHOUT THE GAME.
YUP, IT WAS A VERY FINE DECADE.
JONATHAN BERNIER WAS AGAIN SOLID IN GOAL.
LEAFS TOOK CONTROL LATE IN THE SECOND PERIOD…
… AND SAID “SO LONG” ON A HAPPY NOTE.
HALF–CENTURY OF LEAFS MEDIA GUIDES
Pictured below are 49 Toronto Maple Leafs media guides — from 1962–63 to 2014–15. These were either obtained at sports collectors shows; purchased throughout the 1970’s at Maple Leaf Gardens souvenir stands or provided to me by the club’s media relations staff. The vast majority of National Hockey League teams no longer publish media guides — instead making them available digitally. But, the market here in Toronto allows for continued production, and sale, of the ever–expanding books.
The first Maple Leafs media guide in my collection (top–left) is after the initial of three consecutive Stanley Cup titles in the 1960’s. Captain George Armstrong is pictured on the cover holding the silver mug. The 1962–63 Leafs guide had 48 pages of photos and information. The 2014–15 media guide (top–right) has 548 pages — 509 devoted to the Leafs; 39 to the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League. Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk grace the cover celebrating a goal in the Bridgestone Winter Classic outdoor game against Detroit last Jan. 1 at Michigan Stadium. In the background are silver images of Darryl Sittler, Johnny Bower and Ted Kennedy — the first three players honored with statues in Legends Row on the west plaza of Air Canada Centre.
Ted Green of Boston ties up Frank Mahovlich on cover of the 1963–64 media guide. Leafs won the Stanley Cup for a third consecutive season.
The 1981–82 media guide was adorned with a terrific collage painted by Toronto illustrator Gary McLaughlin. It was commissioned by owner Harold Ballard to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Maple Leaf Gardens. Among the depicted luminaries are Queen Elizabeth, Robert F. Kennedy, Muhammad Ali, Whipper Billy Watson, Billy Graham, John Diefenbaker, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Elton John and Mick Jagger — all of whom had been in the Carlton St. shrine.
This is the only Leafs media guide to feature a horizontal cover and the photo marks one of the truly historic moments in franchise history. It is Rick Vaive becoming the first Toronto player to score 50 goals in a season — beating Mike Liut of the St. Louis Blues at Maple Leaf Gardens on Mar. 24, 1982. St. Louis defenseman on his knee is Hall-of-Famer Guy Lapointe, whose jersey was recently retired by Montreal. Lapointe was part of the Big 3 on the Canadiens’ blue line (with Larry Robinson and Serge Savard) during Stanley Cup dynasty of the late-70’s. He finished his career with St. Louis and Boston. Vaive, the Leafs captain from 1982 to 1986, recorded three consecutive seasons of 50 goals. Only Gary Leeman and Dave Andreychuk have equaled the mark in blue and white.
No Leafs fan currently past the age of 30 can forget the surprising 1992–93 team that came within minutes of playing for the Stanley Cup. It was the year of Doug Gilmour, who established Leaf records for assists (95) and points (127) that haven’t come close to being equaled. The late Pat Burns was in his first season as coach. With a team–record 99 points, Leafs improved by 32 points over the previous year. And if not for a hattrick by Wayne Gretzky of Los Angeles Kings in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup semifinals at Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto and Montreal would have clashed for the NHL title. It remains the farthest Leafs have advanced in the playoffs since their last championship in 1967.
The 1998–99 Leafs guide (top–left) commemorated the final season at Maple Leaf Gardens. The club moved to Air Canada Centre on Feb. 20, 1999. And 2003–04 (top–right) saw Leafs compile their highest regular–season points total: 103 under the late, great Irishman, Pat Quinn.
2007–08 was Mats Sundin’s contentious final season with the Maple Leafs. He is pictured at bottom of cover in front of alternate captains Darcy Tucker, Tomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe.
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