Leafs Have Skill… Right?

TORONTO (Feb. 24) — It is the great paradox of the youthful, energetic and revitalized Toronto Maple Leafs: Provide the slick shooters gobs of open ice or a clean break on the opposition goalie.

And then, far–more often than not, watch them slunk to the dressing room — heads bowed.

The Leafs have played 60 games this season — ten of which have been decided in the five–minute, 3–on–3 overtime period. Toronto’s record: 5–5. Eight other matches have gone to a shootout. Toronto’s record: 1–7. As such, the Maple Leafs have left 12 invaluable points on the table at this juncture of the schedule. Had the club secured even half that total, it would, today, be sitting atop the Atlantic Division, two points ahead of struggling Montreal. Not many weeks ago, the Canadiens held a 12–point advantage over the Leafs. That margin is down to four, with Toronto holding a game–in–hand and preparing for a fourth and final encounter with the Canadiens, tomorrow night, at the Air Canada Centre. So, the question I posed in a blog on Jan. 19 — COULD LEAFS CATCH THE HABS? (http://bit.ly/2jt7dbm) — is no longer debatable. Absolutely, Toronto can overtake Montreal and would have done so already if not for its struggle after 60 minutes.


THE LEAFS SKATED WITH THE RANGERS IN A GOALTENDING BATTLE FOR 65 SCINTILLATING MINUTES ON THURSDAY, BUT YIELDED ANOTHER POINT IN THE SHOOTOUT. CHRIS YOUNG THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

In fact, every team in the Atlantic is liable to cruise past the Habs, an abysmal 5–9–2 in their past 14 games. Merely six points separates Montreal from the last–place Florida Panthers (8–2–0 in their past 10).

But, what is it about the Maple Leafs in extra time this season?

Sporting the best powerplay in the National Hockey League (23.1%); tied for fifth in goals scored (187); sitting 13th in the overall standings (up from 30th last season) and within a single point of equaling their output from a year ago (69), the Leafs are rather terrible in the “bonus” situation. When Auston Matthews cleanly beat Henrik Lundqvist in the shootout on Thursday at the ACC, it represented a departure from what has been agonizingly inefficient for the Blue and White. Typically, it was Toronto’s lone tally and the New York Rangers skated off with a 2–1 triumph. The Maple Leaf newbies (Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Connor Brown) have accounted for an impressive 65 goals. Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak are veterans of the shootout. Skill abounds. Yet, the club is discombobulated after 60 minutes of play.

The shootout has been the subject of widespread vitriol among Maple Leaf fans this season. That’s what generally happens when a team is 1–7. I don’t like the gimmick any more than most others, but rules are rules. All 30 teams operate within the identical framework and lost points, particularly in overtime, can be very costly — with ROW’s (Regulation or Overtime Wins) the first tie–breaker in the standings. Shootout records do not count, but the points yielded (Leafs have given up seven) can severely impact overall ranking and/or playoff aspiration. As mentioned, it has cost Toronto two rungs in the Atlantic Division thus far.

An improvement in the final quarter of the schedule could put the Maple Leafs into the playoffs — and, potentially, in an enviable spot to begin the Stanley Cup tournament.

15 YEARS AGO TODAY

It ranks among the top five memories of my 23–year term as a reporter at Canada’s first all–sports radio station. The afternoon of Feb. 24, 2002 at the E Center in West Valley City, Utah: 11.2 miles southwest of downtown Salt Lake City. The Canadian team at the Olympic Winter Games — organized by Wayne Gretzky; coached by the late Pat Quinn, and led, on the ice, by a plethora of future Hall of Famers — upended the host Americans, 5–2, to win our country’s first gold medal in men’s hockey since 1952.

I was privileged to be on hand, covering the game for The FAN–590 (now Sportsnet–590).

It occurred less than three days after the Canadian women’s hockey team — in the same venue and with its male counterparts looking on — overcame incompetent officiating to edge its American rival, 3–2, avenging a bitter defeat, four years earlier, in the gold medal match at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

  
CAPTAIN MARIO LEMIEUX (LEFT) AND GOALIE MARTIN BRODEUR CELEBRATE THE CANADIAN MEN’S GOLD MEDAL VICTORY 15 YEARS AGO TODAY AT THE SALE LAKE OLYMPICS.

Eleven players on the 2002 Canadian men’s team — Ed Belfour, Rob Blake, Al MacInnis, Scott Niedermayer, Mario Lemieux, Eric Lindros, Joe Nieuwendyk, Chris Pronger, Joe Sakic, Brendan Shanahan and Steve Yzerman — have since been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Two others — Martin Brodeur and Jarome Iginla — will eventually follow. Given prevailing sentiment, the Canadian gold medal sweep likely ranks second to that which occurred eight years later, on home turf, in Vancouver. But, Salt Lake City will forever remain among the seminal moments in our country’s international hockey history.

Please enjoy this pictorial look down memory lane:


SITE OF CANADA’S OLYMPIC HOCKEY SWEEP IN 2002: THE E CENTER NEAR SALT LAKE CITY.


A LEATHER JACKET FROM THE SALT LAKE OLYMPICS THAT I WEAR TO THIS DAY.


A HANDFUL OF CANADIAN HOCKEY MEDIA GUIDES FROM THE 2002 WINTER GAMES.

  
MY MEDIA CREDENTIAL IN SALT LAKE CITY AND COVER OF THE MEN’S HOCKEY GUIDE.


WAYNE GRETZKY (TOP) PUT TOGETHER TEAM CANADA 2002; PAT QUINN (BELOW) COACHED THE CLUB.


THE PLAYERS

  
HAVING ALREADY WON TWO STANLEY CUP TITLES WITH NEW JERSEY, MARTIN BRODEUR REPLACED CURTIS JOSEPH IN GOAL AFTER CANADA’S OPENING 5–2 LOSS TO SWEDEN.

  
  
  
  
  
IT WAS THE FIRST AND FINAL OLYMPICS CALL FOR MAGNIFICENT MARIO.

  
  
  
  
TEAM CANADA’S MVP IN SALT LAKE CITY WAS JOE SAKIC OF THE COLORADO AVALANCHE, WHO SCORED TWICE AND ADDED A PAIR OF ASSISTS IN THE GOLD MEDAL GAME.

  
  
THE GREAT STEVIE Y WOULD FOLLOW WAYNE GRETZKY AS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE CANADIAN MEN’S OLYMPIC TEAM — OVERSEEING GOLD MEDALS IN 2010 (VANCOUVER) AND 2014 (SOCHI).

THE OFFICIAL RECORD

  
  

OWEN NOLAN, PAT QUINN, BRENDAN SHANAHAN.


THE GOLDEN GALS

  
  
  
  
  

BOB NICHOLSON, HALEY WICKENHEISER.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

This site is protected by Comment SPAM Wiper.