TORONTO (Mar. 5) — With Detroit next up for the Maple Leafs, it’s an appropriate time to wonder if the last meeting between the pre–expansion rivals supplied the demarcation point in Toronto’s schedule.
That would have been Jan. 25 at Joe Louis Arena, when the Leafs toyed with the Red Wings, 4–0. It extended a torrid run over 15 games to 11–2–2 for the Blue and White… and the possibilities seemed endless. The club had erupted from its bye period with a 5–1–1 record and multiple games–in–hand on Atlantic Division rivals. After a blistering start, the Canadiens were flat, and the Bruins were teetering as well; both would soon fire their coaches. A remarkable spate of fortune had kept the Toronto line–up intact through the first half of the season. The Leafs were healthy and poised to legitimately challenge Montreal for first place in the division.
Or, so it appeared.
Since that lop–sided visit to MoTown, the Leafs have truly sputtered, compiling a 5–8–5 record in 18 games. Those in–hand over the Canadiens and Bruins expired without a breakthrough. Key players Morgan Rielly, Mitch Marner and Tyler Bozak have been sidelined; the compressed schedule finally exacting an injury toll. Since Feb. 24 — merely nine days ago — Montreal has widened its gap over Toronto from four to 12 points. Yes, credit “new” coach Claude Julien and the Canadiens for a timely five–game win streak, underscored by a 4–1 romp over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Saturday. But, the Leafs have played their part in the division tumble with a five–game winless streak (0–3–2) and a lamentable slog through California during the past week that yielded one point in games at San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim.
IT FEELS LIKE QUITE AWHILE AGO THAT AUSTON MATTHEWS AND THE MAPLE LEAFS PUMMELED THE RED WINGS, 4–0, IN DETROIT TO END A TERRIFIC RUN OF 11–2–2 OVER 15 GAMES.
As such, on this Sunday, in a rare idle weekend, the Leafs have fallen perilously in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference. Four points now separates Toronto from third–place Boston and a guaranteed playoff berth in the Atlantic. The Leafs are only one point behind the New York Islanders (70–71) for the second wild–card spot in the East, but the Isles have played one fewer game. And, there is much traffic in the rear–view mirror — Florida, Tampa Bay, Philadelphia and Buffalo all within four points of the Blue and White.
So, now, with Detroit on the schedule for the first time since that heady night in late–January, we wonder if the Leafs have blown their main fuse? The Red Wings visit Air Canada Centre on Tuesday to begin the final 18–game stretch. Will it be a triumphant push toward Toronto’s first playoff appearance in a full, 82–game season since 2003–04? Or does 18, once again, represent the number of wheels going over the cliff?
My perception — a gut–feel — is that there’s plenty of sass left in this energetic team. Whether or not it qualifies for the Stanley Cup tournament is somewhat immaterial, though what an experience that would be for the players and fans. Whereas another club might feel content with a profound improvement, it says here the coach will not allow for complacency. Though a second year of missing the playoffs would coincide with Mike Babcock’s now–legendary forecast of “pain”, there won’t be any let–up behind the bench. Babcock does not have a poker face. There is no camouflaging the agony of defeat. One season of playoff–spectating was enough for the decorated coach. He will squeeze every last drop of oil from the 2016–17 Maple Leafs, come hell or high water. In my opinion, the club’s enviable combination of skill and youth — and despite an obvious defensive shortfall — will allow it to remain in the post–season hunt ’til the very end.
YOU CAN REST ASSURED THERE WILL BE NO COMPLACENCY BEHIND THE MAPLE LEAFS BENCH IN THE FINAL MONTH OF THE REGULAR SEASON. SPORTSNET.CA
With a mainstay on the blue line, as I’ve written more times than I can count, this would be a legitimate playoff contender. In the absence of such, the onus remains on the slick shooters up front; Freddy Andersen between the pipes, and the ever–driven man behind the bench. The schedule — 10 games at home; eight on the road — provides little margin for error. Chicago, Washington, Pittsburgh and Columbus visit the Air Canada Centre. The Leafs travel to Florida, Columbus and Nashville. Potential four–point swings in the division and conference standings abound with games against Philadelphia, Florida, Boston, Tampa Bay (twice) and Buffalo (twice). Motivation, at the very least, should not be an issue for the Blue and White.
Imagine a playoff berth hanging in the balance on the final weekend of the schedule. With consecutive–night home games against the Penguins and Blue Jackets — currently fifth and fourth, respectively, in the overall standings. Then, imagine the euphoria at Air Canada Centre were the Leafs to prevail and finish among the top eight clubs in the Eastern Conference. Quite the scenario. And, still not out of the question.
MORE FROM THE CLOSET
In my previous blog, I posted a display of souvenir pucks I’ve assembled since being conked in the head by a slapshot from Andre Boudrias of the Vancouver Canucks, at Maple Leaf Gardens, on my 14th birthday (Feb. 3, 1973). Now, more hockey (and baseball) memorabilia temporarily forgotten while stored in a bedroom closet… until being unearthed, last week, by my son, Shane. Part of this “find” was a large bin of kid–sized National Hockey League jerseys — collected for Shane while I covered the Leafs as a reporter at The FAN–590. Most of the jersey purchases were made in the early–2000’s, when my son was a rug–rat in grade–school — and worth every penny when recalling the excitement on his face after a road trip.
Some fairly neat stuff here. Please enjoy.
HERE IS A FRAMED SET OF NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE JERSEY–PINS I BOUGHT FOR MY NEWBORN SON AT THE UNITED CENTER IN CHICAGO ON DEC. 9, 1996 (LEAFS BEAT THE BLACKHAWKS, 3–1). SHANE WAS THREE DAYS OLD AND IT WAS MY FIRST ROAD TRIP SINCE HIS ARRIVAL. THIS ITEM HUNG ABOVE THE CHANGE–TABLE IN HIS NURSERY (THEN BEDROOM) FOR MORE THAN FOUR YEARS. NOTE HOW MANY OF THE LEAGUE UNIFORM DESIGNS HAVE CHANGED SINCE THE 1996–97 SEASON.
A PENNANT FROM THE 2008 NHL ALL–STAR GAME AT PHILIPS ARENA IN ATLANTA.
ALSO FROM PHILIPS ARENA, A REPLICA ATLANTA THRASHERS GOALIE MASK.
LONG BEFORE THE THRASHERS CAME THE ATLANTA FLAMES, WHO JOINED THE NHL (WITH THE NEW YORK ISLANDERS) IN THE EXPANSION OF 1972–73. I OBTAINED THIS 1977–78 FLAMES CALENDAR AS A COLLECTOR’S SHOW SOME YEARS BACK. THE CLUB’S JANUARY 1978 SCHEDULE (BELOW) FEATURES SUCH FORMER NHL TEAMS AS THE COLORADO ROCKIES, MINNESOTA NORTH STARS AND CLEVELAND BARONS. THE FLAMES MOVED NORTH TO CALGARY FOR THE 1980–81 SEASON.
STAYING IN ATLANTA, A CLOTH–TOMAHAWK FROM A SOUVENIR STAND AT OLD FULTON–COUNTY STADIUM DURING THE 1992 WORLD SERIES BETWEEN THE BRAVES AND TORONTO BLUE JAYS.
THIS REPLICA BANNER (BOTH SIDES, ABOVE) WAS GIVEN TO MEMBERS OF THE MEDIA AT JOE LOUIS ARENA PRIOR TO DETROIT’S SEASON OPENER AGAINST THE MAPLE LEAFS ON OCT. 9, 2008. IT COMMEMORATED THE RED WINGS STANLEY CUP VICTORY OVER PITTSBURGH THE PREVIOUS JUNE — THE LONE NHL CHAMPIONSHIP TO DATE FOR COACH MIKE BABCOCK (BELOW).
STILL IN PLASTIC SLEEVES: TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS CALENDARS FROM THE LAST TIME THE CLUB MADE THE PLAYOFFS IN A FULL, 82–GAME SEASON. COACHED BY THE LATE PAT QUINN, THE 2003–04 LEAFS ALSO HOLD THE FRANCHISE RECORD OF 103 POINTS IN A SEASON. PICTURED ON THE COVER (FROM LEFT–TO–RIGHT) WERE ALEXANDER MOGILNY, CAPTAIN MATS SUNDIN AND OWEN NOLAN.
THE LEAFS VISITED COLUMBUS FOR THE FIRST TIME ON MAR. 20, 2003 (DURING THE BLUE JACKETS THIRD NHL SEASON) AND I BOUGHT THIS JERSEY FOR SHANE AT NATIONWIDE ARENA. TORONTO LOST, 4–3, IN OVERTIME. CLOSE–UP VIEWS, BELOW, OF FRONT LOGO AND SHOULDER–PATCH.
IN 2002–03, THE NEW YORK ISLANDERS INTRODUCED A PREDOMINANTLY–ORANGE ALTERNATE JERSEY. I PICKED UP ONE AT THE NASSAU COLISEUM ON MY SON’S SIXTH BIRTHDAY: DEC. 6, 2002. THE MAPLE LEAFS LOST, 4–2, JUST MORE THAN SEVEN MONTHS AFTER A BRUTAL, SEVEN–GAME PLAYOFF SERIES BETWEEN THE CLUBS, IN WHICH THE HOME TEAM WENT UNDEFEATED. TORONTO PREVAILED.
IN 2003–04, THE ATLANTA THRASHERS INTRODUCED THIS HANDSOME, YET COCKEYED JERSEY AS AN ALTERNATE. IT HAD ONLY ONE SHOULDER–YOKE AND THE CITY’S NAME RAN DOWN THE LEFT ARM. STILL, IT WAS POPULAR ENOUGH AMONG FANS TO BECOME ATLANTA’S PRIMARY JERSEY IN 2006–07… AND FOR THE FINAL FIVE SEASONS OF THE CLUB’S TERM IN GEORGIA. I BOUGHT IT FOR SHANE WHILE COVERING A LEAFS–THRASHERS GAME AT PHILIPS ARENA ON NOV. 27, 2003 (3–1 TORONTO VICTORY).
THIS IS MY FAVORITE JERSEY OF THE NHL’s LAST EXPANSION WAVE (1998–2000). THE MINNESOTA WILD (BORN IN 2000–01) INTRODUCED A PREDOMINANTLY–SCARLET UNIFORM AS AN ALTERNATE FOR THE 2003–04 SEASON. THE LEAFS MADE THEIR FIRST VISIT TO THE XCEL ENERGY CENTER ON DEC. 11, 2003 AND ED BELFOUR BLANKED THE WILD, 1–0. I BROUGHT THIS HOME FROM THAT TRIP TO ST. PAUL.
PHILADELPHIA CAME UP WITH THIS ALTERNATE JERSEY FOR THE 2002–03 SEASON. FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE THE CLUB’S INCEPTION IN 1967, IT MODIFIED THE STYLIZED–P LOGO — OUTLINING IT IN SILVER. I TOOK SHANE WITH ME TO PHILLY FOR A LEAFS–FLYERS GAME ON DEC. 12, 2002 (2–1 TORONTO LOSS) AND BOUGHT THIS JERSEY FOR HIM AT THE WELLS–FARGO CENTER.
THE MIGHTY DUCKS OF ANAHEIM APPEARED FOR THE 1993–94 SEASON, INTRODUCING “EGGPLANT” (OR CONCORD–GRAPE) AND “JADE” AS THEIR COLORS… AND UNVEILING THE FIRST DIAGONAL STRIPE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE JERSEY. THIS WAS ORIGINALLY A PROMOTIONAL TOOL FOR THE DISNEY COMPANY AND ITS MOVIE OF THE SAME NAME (“THE MIGHTY DUCKS”). THE LOGO AND SHOULDER–PATCH (BOTTOM–LEFT) WERE ALSO RATHER UNIQUE TO HOCKEY. BOUGHT THIS AT THE HONDA CENTER PRIOR TO A LEAFS–DUCKS GAME ON NOV. 12, 2003 (5–1 ANAHEIM VICTORY).
THIS WAS VANCOUVER’S ENTRY IN THE ALTERNATE–JERSEY FAD OF THE NEW MILLENNIUM. IT APPEARED FOR THE 2001–02 SEASON AND STUCK AROUND TIL THE END OF 2005–06. I PICKED IT UP AT ROGERS ARENA (THEN STILL CALLED GENERAL MOTORS PLACE) BEFORE A LEAFS–CANUCKS GAME ON NOV. 22, 2003 (TORONTO WON, 5–3, ON THE 40th ANNIVERSARY OF THE JFK ASSASSINATION).
WHEN REEBOK EDGE OBTAINED NHL JERSEY–DESIGN RIGHTS FOR THE 2007–08 SEASON, THIS BECAME THE SAN JOSE SHARKS HOME OUTFIT — WITH THE CLASSIC TEAL INTRODUCED BY THE CLUB IN 1991–92 AND ONE OF THE GREAT LOGOS OF ALL TIME (SHOULDER–PATCH AT BOTTOM–LEFT). THE LEAFS LOST, 3–2, IN SAN JOSE ON JAN. 12, 2008 AND I BOUGHT THIS JERSEY AT THE SAP CENTER.
IN 1996–97, TO COINCIDE WITH THE OPENING OF A NEW DOWNTOWN ARENA, THE BUFFALO SABRES TOTALLY RE–DESIGNED THEIR LOOK. GONE WAS THE CLUB’S ORIGINAL COLOR–SCHEME OF BLUE, GOLD AND WHITE — REPLACED BY A PREDOMINANTLY BLACK (THEN–ROAD) JERSEY, WITH RED AND WHITE TRIM. A NEW CROSSED–SWORD LOGO AND SHOULDER–PATCH ALSO EMERGED. IN 2000–01, THE SABRES ADDED THIS RED ALTERNATE UNIFORM. IT STUCK AROUND TIL THE END OF 2005–06, WHEREUPON THE CLUB REVERTED TO ITS ORIGINAL COLORS. I BOUGHT THIS ITEM AT WHAT IS NOW THE KEYBANK CENTER PRIOR TO A 6–2 SABRES WIN OVER THE LEAFS ON MAR. 3, 2006.
ALSO AS THE RESULT OF MOVING TO A NEW ARENA, THE PHOENIX (NOW ARIZONA) COYOTES COMPLETELY RE–DESIGNED THEIR ORIGINAL LOOK FOR THE 2003–04 SEASON. BRICK–RED, SAND AND BLACK BECAME THE TEAM COLORS; REPLETE WITH A NEW LOGO AND SHOULDER–PATCH (BOTTOM–LEFT). THE ARENA, IN SUBURBAN GLENDALE, WASN’T READY TO OPEN THE ’03–04 SCHEDULE (THE TEAM MOVED ON DEC. 26), SO THE COYOTES REMAINED IN DOWNTOWN PHOENIX AT THEIR FIRST HOME, THE AMERICA WEST ARENA. THE MAPLE LEAFS DEFEATED THE COYOTES, 5–4, AT AMERICA WEST ON OCT. 23, 2003 AND I BOUGHT THIS JERSEY FOR SHANE BEFORE THE MATCH.
THE CALGARY FLAMES INTRODUCED THIS JERSEY (AND NEW SHOULDER–PATCH) IN 2003–04, WHEN THE NHL RE–INSTATED ITS POLICY OF HOME TEAMS WEARING PREDOMINANTLY–COLORED UNIFORMS. FROM 1970–71 TO 2002–03, CLUBS WORE THEIR BASIC–WHITE JERSEYS ON HOME ICE. I BOUGHT THIS FOR SHANE AT THE SADDLEDOME IN CALGARY WHILE COVERING THE 2004 STANLEY CUP FINAL BETWEEN THE FLAMES AND TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (T–BAY PREVAILED IN SEVEN GAMES).
AND, FROM SWEDEN...
IN SEPTEMBER 2003, I TRAVELED TO STOCKHOLM TO COVER THE FIRST WEEK OF THE MAPLE LEAFS TRAINING CAMP. MATS SUNDIN AND THE LEAFS PLAYED EXHIBITION GAMES AGAINST SWEDISH ELITE TEAMS DJURGARDEN AND FARJESTADS. BUT, I BOUGHT THE JERSEY OF BRYNAS–IF FOR SHANE, AS IT HAD BEEN THE CLUB–TEAM OF LEAFS LEGEND BORJE SALMING FOR THREE YEARS BEFORE HE CAME TO THE NHL IN 1973. THE HOME CITY FOR BRYNAS IS GAVLE: 98 MILES NORTHWEST OF STOCKHOLM.