Toronto, Detroit and Culture Shock

TORONTO (Jan. 26) — Of all the disparity provided by the Toronto Maple Leafs this season, nothing is quite–so foreign as the club being decidedly better than the Detroit Red Wings. Eons have passed since the Leafs could make such a claim — statistically and/or stylishly. At this moment, however, there is virtually no comparison between the Atlantic Division rivals. Toronto is a young, energetic club on its way up; Detroit a once–dynastic team on its way down in the cyclical universe of the National Hockey League.

This was hammered home rather poignantly on Wednesday night, when the Leafs toyed with the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena. The final score was 4–0, but it may as well have been 14–0 given how thoroughly the visitors dominated. To be fair, the Red Wings — progressively thinning in talent and depth — were without injured players Dylan Larkin, Steve Ott, Brendan Smith, Jimmy Howard, Johan Franzen and Joe Vitale.

But, the ice appeared tilted toward Detroit’s end from start to finish.

The Joe will be boarded up and prepped for demolition after this season, as the Red Wings prepare to inhabit  the new Little Caesars Arena in September. Few NHL opponents will be saddened to see the last of the current building, in which, while playing since December 1979, the Red Wings won four Stanley Cup titles and an NHL–record 62 games in one season. In 12 full (non–lockout) seasons since 1995–96, the Wings lost fewer than 10 games on home ice. They won 30 or more games at the Joe in three different seasons. Included, were home–ice records of 36–3–2 in 1995–96; 28–6–7 in 2002–03; 30–7–4 in 2003–04; 29–4–8 in 2006–07 and 31–7–3 in 2011–12. This was not an arena with a lush WELCOME mat.

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THE LEAFS BARELY BROKE A SWEAT WHILE ROUTING DETROIT ON WEDNESDAY. SPORTSNET IMAGE

Surprisingly, the Maple Leafs have held their own at Joe Louis Arena in the past 20–plus years. From 1995–96 to the end of last season, Toronto’s road record at Detroit was a reasonable 10–14–3 (not including the Jan. 1, 2014 shootout victory at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor). But, the Red Wings have compiled more points than the Leafs in 24 of the past 27 seasons — the lone exceptions being the lockout–shortened 2012–13 (57–56 for Toronto); 1998–99 (97–93) and 1989–90 (80–70). Detroit appeared in the Stanley Cup final in 1995, 1997, 1998, 2002, 2008 and 2009, winning four times. Toronto hasn’t been to the final round since 1967.

So, yes, it is rather atypical for the Leafs to be ahead of Detroit in the division and overall standings. As of today, the points–gap is only six (55–49). But, the Leafs have three games in hand on the Red Wings and Detroit is tied with the Islanders, Carolina, Buffalo, Tampa Bay and New Jersey for fewest points in the Eastern Conference. Toronto has a superb 11–2–2 record (24 points) in 15 games since Dec. 22. The Wings are 5–5–5 (15 points) in their past 15 starts. And, Detroit is in jeopardy of missing the playoffs for the first time since 1989–90, after a remarkable string of 25 consecutive appearances (the Maple Leafs have missed the playoffs 14 times in the same period — including all 10 of the past full, 82–game seasons).

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LITTLE CAESARS ARENA (CIRCLED, LOWER–LEFT) IS BEING BUILT IN DOWNTOWN DETROIT, KITTY–CORNER TO THE WHITE–ROOFED FORD FIELD (HOME OF THE NFL LIONS) AND ADJACENT COMERICA PARK (HOME OF THE BASEBALL TIGERS). IT WILL OPEN FOR THE 2017–18 NHL SEASON. JOE LOUIS ARENA, ON THE BANK OF THE DETROIT RIVER, IS CIRCLED IN UPPER–RIGHT.

The biggest improvement for the Leafs is a road mark of 11–6–6 this season, including a franchise–record run (9–0–2) of points in 11 consecutive games. The club’s longest undefeated streak away from home is nine games (four wins, five ties) in 1947–48. The current 11–game streak technically includes a shootout loss at Vancouver (Dec. 3) and an overtime defeat at Washington (Jan. 3). Toronto won 15 road games all last season, and only eight in the disastrous 2014–15 season. The Leafs record for road victories in one season is 23 — under Pat Quinn in 2003–04, when the team compiled a franchise–high mark of 103 points.

TROPHY WATCH

The Leafs haven’t exactly been hoarders of NHL silverware in the past half–century. Only three members of the organization have earned individual awards since 1965–66, when Brit Selby won the Calder Trophy as rookie–of–the–year. Pat Burns (Jack Adams Award) and Doug Gilmour (Frank J. Selke Trophy) double–dipped after the Leafs’ surprising 1992–93 season. And, Alexander Mogilny won the Lady Byng Trophy in 2002–03.

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BRIT SELBY’S BIO IN THE 1966–67 TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS MEDIA GUIDE.

Just beyond the halfway mark of the current season, the Maple Leafs have four individuals in contention for NHL awards. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are seriously challenging for the Calder; Mike Babcock is staring down the Adams, and Frederik Andersen is working his way into the conversation for the Vezina Trophy as top goaltender. Matthews and Marner will be in tough against Patrik Laine of Winnpeg and Zach Werenski of Columbus. Babcock and John Tortorella of the Blue Jackets are front–runners for top coach.

Andersen will need a terrific second half to oust any of the seven goalies currently ahead of him in wins: Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus (28); Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota (26); Cam Talbot, Edmonton (25); Martin Jones, San Jose (25); Tuukka Rask, Boston (23); Braden Holtby, Washington (23) and Carey Price, Montreal (22). Andersen and Peter Budaj of Los Angeles are next, with 21 victories. The Toronto starter is 21–10–8 with a 2.55 goals–against average and a .921 save percentage. He is coming off consecutive–game shut–outs of Calgary and Detroit. Back–up Curtis McElhinney will make his second start as a Leaf tonight in Philadelphia.

CENTENNIAL CHRONOLOGY

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The officially–sanctioned publication of the Toronto Maple Leafs centennial season has been available since November and is well worthy of any hockey fan’s bookshelf. Beneath the conservative, yet handsome cover (above) is 373 pages of stories and photos in chronological order, beginning with the Toronto Arenas in the NHL’s inaugural season of 1917–18. It is superbly researched and written by my good friend Kevin Shea, who is soaring up the ladder among prolific hockey authors. Kevin is proud of such prior works as the Bill Barilko biography, and autobiographies with Ron Ellis, Derek Sanderson and Larry Robinson. But, I’ve never seen his eyes twinkle quite so brightly as during the launch for this publication. If fans of the Leafs truly live and die with the team, Kevin must be 236 years old. Virtually nothing, however, keeps him away from his season tickets for hockey at the Air Canada Centre. As such, the Leafs centennial project was a classic labor of love.

Here is a look at several pages and photographs:

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THE TORONTO ST. PATS WAS THE FRANCHISE–FORERUNNER TO THE MAPLE LEAFS.

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TORONTO DEFENSEMAN KENT DOUGLAS AND BOSTON FORWARD JOHN McKENZIE DURING A GAME AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS IN 1965–66. DOUGLAS WON THE CALDER TROPHY IN 1962–63.

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MEMBERS OF THE LEAFS POSE WITH THE STANLEY CUP AFTER WINNING THE CLUB’S MOST RECENT CHAMPIONSHIP, IN 1967. STANDING (LEFT–TO–RIGHT): GM/COACH PUNCH IMLACH; DEFENSEMAN MARCEL PRONOVOST; CAPTAIN GEORGE ARMSTRONG; CENTER RED KELLY AND DEFENSEMAN ALLAN STANLEY. SEATED ARE GOALIES JOHNNY BOWER (LEFT) AND TERRY SAWCHUK. IMLACH, PRONOVOST, STANLEY AND SAWCHUK ARE DECEASED.

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JOHNNY BOWER (1) SKATES BEHIND TERRY SAWCHUK DURING A PRE–GAME WARM–UP AT THE GARDENS DURING THE 1967 STANLEY CUP FINAL AGAINST MONTREAL.

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TOP–LEFT: SAWCHUK SHOOTS PUCK INTO THE CORNER AS ALLAN STANLEY (26) DEFENDS AGAINST BILL HAY (8) OF CHICAGO DURING THE 1967 STANLEY CUP SEMIFINALS. TOP–RIGHT: CAPTAIN DOUG GILMOUR AND A YOUNG MATS SUNDIN DURING THE LOCKOUT SEASON OF JANUARY–MAY 1995.

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CAPTAIN DARRYL SITTLER SPARKED A MAPLE LEAFS REVIVAL IN THE MID–TO–LATE–1970’s.

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PUNCH IMLACH POINTS THE WAY WITH FELLOW MAPLE LEAFS LEGEND KING CLANCY.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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