TORONTO (Apr. 13) — Disregard, for a moment, the virtual consensus among media that the Leafs have no chance to upset Washington in the first round of the Stanley Cup tournament. A guy that played rather effectively for the Blue and White remembers a futile scenario, 15 years ago, in which his club prevailed.
He was at the center of an issue that turned to mud Daniel Alfredsson’s name in this city.
I, too, remember it. Like yesterday. May 10, 2002. Being at the Air Canada Centre to cover Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinal between the Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators. For The FAN–590. Series deadlocked, 2–2. Ottawa led, 3–2, late in regulation time when Alfredsson shoved Darcy Tucker into the side–boards from behind. Beneath and to the right of my press box location. Tucker sustained a cracked collarbone. No penalty was called. The Senators added an empty–net goal to grab a 3–2 series lead heading home for Game 6. Whereupon elimination quickly began to stare down the visitors — Ottawa grabbing a 2–0 edge (goals by Marian Hossa and Alfredsson) at 4:39 of the first period. Impossibility gripped the Leafs.
As it does today, prior to Game 1 against Washington.
“I saw that anything can happen in a seven–game series,” emailed Tucker earlier today from Mexico, where he and his family are vacationing. “This young [Leafs] team has surprised people every step of the way. Mike Babcock continues to be a great influence on the kids. It should be fun to watch what can happen.”
What happened at the Canadian Tire Centre on May 12, 2002 defied reason.
With the raucous crowd of 18,500 going goofy, roles suddenly reversed. Placid, unheralded Ricard Persson of the Senators rammed the bellicose Tie Domi into the side–glass — also from behind — cutting Domi above the eye. Referee Dave Jackson (working with Bill McCreary) assessed Persson a five–minute boarding major and game–misconduct. On the ensuing powerplay, Bryan McCabe and Gary Roberts scored, bringing the match back to even. Whatever home–crowd advantage existed (and it seemed enormous along press row) dissipated with the consecutive Leaf tallies. Roberts and Todd White traded goals late in the second period. When Alexander Mogilny put the Leafs ahead at 4:28 of the third, Pat Quinn’s squad threw a defensive blanket over the dispirited Senators, who managed a paltry four shots at Curtis Joseph in the final frame. The come–from–behind 3–2 victory — after it appeared Ottawa would run Toronto out of the rink — sent the series back to the Air Canada Centre two nights later, where the Leafs rather–easily prevailed, 3–0.
Did so, in fact, without two of their most–important players: Tucker and Mats Sundin.
DANIEL ALFREDSSON AND DARCY TUCKER TANGLE IN THE 2002 PLAYOFFS.
Is there a parallel to be drawn between the near–hopeless Leaf situation of 15 years ago… and the one that currently prevails before the Toronto–Washington series? Maybe? Maybe not.
Tucker would lean toward the former. As would any Leaf that took part in unquestionably the team’s biggest playoff upset of the post–1967 era — a three–game demolition of the Chicago Blackhawks to begin the 1986 Stanley Cup tournament. Chicago (39–33–8) finished 29 points ahead of the defensively–horrid Leafs (25–48–7) that season. It was a different game then; more wide–open with average–at–best goaltending across the league. Toronto yielded 386 goals (4.83 per game), one fewer than the franchise–record from 1983–84. And, 144 more than the club allowed this season. The Leafs and Blackhawks faced off at Chicago Stadium on Apr. 9, 1986 only because the rules dictated so. Otherwise, there was no real purpose for such lop–sided opponents to square off in a best–of–five preliminary playoff round. Or, so it seemed. To everyone.
Three nights later, when fans nearly lifted the roof off Maple Leaf Gardens, the underdogs completed an emphatic sweep — destroying the Blackhawks, 7–2, in the final match. It followed 5–3 and 6–4 victories on the road. Steve Thomas… Tom Fergus… Gary Leeman… Russ Courtnall… Rick Vaive… Wendel Clark… Walt Poddubny… Miroslav Frycer. Non–factors for six months during the regular season. Unstoppable to begin the playoffs. To this day, Hall–of–Famer Denis Savard, who single–handedly kept Chicago in the first two games, will likely tell you that he never… ever… envisioned such an outcome.
Could Alex Ovechkin be talking similarly in the next fortnight?
Darcy Tucker will tell you that’s why they play the games.
50 YEARS AGO THIS WEEK
On this night, one–half century ago, the Leafs were en route to winning their most–recent Stanley Cup — facing Chicago in Game 4 of the semifinals at Maple Leaf Gardens. The Black Hawks prevailed, 4–3, on Apr. 13, 1967 to deadlock the best–of–seven round, 2–2. A couple of nights earlier, also at the Gardens, the Leafs had taken a 2–1 series lead with a 3–1 triumph in Game 3 (Toronto would upset Chicago in six).
The program, below (with the Big M on the cover), is from that third match: