Don’t Count ‘Em Out

TORONTO (Apr. 22) — Yes, the Maple Leaf are down. Facing elimination on Sunday night at the Air Canada Centre. But, there is nothing about this scrappy, underdog team that suggests it is done.

If the Leafs could arrange to ship Justin Williams back to Los Angeles, their chance of rebounding to upset the Washington Capitals would improve. In baseball, being labeled “Mr. May” — as was Hall–of–Famer Dave Winfield by New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner — is the ultimate insult. In hockey, you cannot offer someone a bigger compliment. Williams won a pair of Stanley Cups with the Kings… and the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP when Los Angeles defeated the New York Rangers in 2014. He knows his way around the rink when the weather gets warm; his goal at 1:04 of overtime knocked off the Maple Leafs last night at the Verizon Center. The Capitals now hold a decided statistical edge, as 78 percent of teams prevailing in Game 5 of a series that was tied 2–2 advance to the following round. But, these Leafs may not be the worst 22 percent bet of all time. You can be sure Mike Babcock will have his charges well–prepared for Game 6, and many would agree that this splendid playoff round deserves to go the limit. We shall see.

  
JUSTIN WILLIAMS (14) BEATS FREDERIK ANDERSEN FOR OVERTIME WINNER IN GAME 5. CBC IMAGES

Last night’s result wasn’t unjust, as Washington won consecutive games for the first time in the series. Though the Leafs carried play for long stretches of the second period, they could not beat Braden Holtby. The Capitals then took over and were much the better team in the third. Similarly, they had no luck against Frederik Andersen, who recovered spectacularly from a poor effort in Game 4. How balanced was the series heading into overtime? Each club had scored 15 goals; Toronto had out–shot Washington 175–174. But, faulty defensive coverage by Morgan Rielly and Matt Hunwick allowed Williams to find an open space in front of the visiting goal. He one–timed Evgeni Kuznetsov’s pass from beside the net along the ice past Andersen. The resultant noise from the Washington crowd was equal parts jubilation and relief.

The story–line until overtime was the jolt delivered by Nazem Kadri to Alex Ovechkin in the first period. When I grew up watching the game, Kadri’s hit would have been lauded as a classic hip–check; an art nearly extinct in today’s NHL. Such defensemen as Bob Baun, Leo Boivin and Bob Plager patented the hip–check in the 1960’s and 70’s. In the rare instance we see one today, a penalty is nearly always called for “low–bridging” an opponent. As such, Kadri served two minutes for apparently injuring Ovechkin’s left knee, though the Washington star returned in the second period for the remainder of the match. He later went after Kadri and speared the Leafs center in the ribs without a call; forward Matt Niskanen sent Kadri to the ice with a slash to the calf that was called. Nothing like a little bile to spice up a playoff series. The Maple Leafs and Capitals do not like one another and their enmity should continue in the remaining games.

  
NAZEM KADRI PUTS A HIP INTO ALEX OVECHKIN (ABOVE), SENDING THE CAPITALS STAR SPRAWLING TO THE ICE. WHEN OVECHKIN GRABBED HIS LEFT KNEE (BOTTOM–RIGHT), HE APPEARED INJURED. BUT, HE RETURNED TO THE GAME AT THE START OF THE SECOND PERIOD. CBC IMAGES

  
  
IN THE MIDDLE FRAME, OVECHKIN GOT AWAY WITH SPEARING KADRI IN THE RIBS. CBC IMAGES

The Leafs have gone to overtime on four occasions in the same series for only the third time in franchise history. The first was against Boston in the 1933 Stanley Cup semifinals. The Leafs prevailed in the decider of a best–of–five round when Ken Doraty scored at 4:46 of the sixth extra period at Maple Leaf Gardens. It remains the second–longest game in Stanley Cup history. All five games of the 1951 Stanley Cup final between Toronto and Montreal went beyond regulation. It ended on Bill Barilko’s legendary goal against Bill Durnan 66 years ago yesterday (Apr. 21).

The Maple Leafs have trailed 3–2 in a best–of–seven series more recently — including their last playoff round, in 2013, against Boston. Toronto prevailed on home–ice, 2–1, forcing the now gut–wrenching finale (for Leaf fans) at TD Garden. Other situations in the post–expansion era (after 1967) include:

2003 East QF vs. Philadelphia — Leafs won Game 6 at Air Canada Centre in overtime.
2002 East F vs. Carolina — Leafs were eliminated in overtime in Game 6 at the ACC.
2000 East SF vs. New Jersey — Devils eliminated the Leafs in Game 6 at Continental Airlines Arena.
1995 West QF vs. Chicago — Leafs won 5–4 in Game 6 at the United Center.
1994 West SF vs. San Jose — Leafs avoided elimination in Game 6 overtime at Maple Leaf Gardens.
1988 Norris Division SF vs. Detroit — Leafs were sent packing in Game 6 at the Gardens.
1986 Norris SF vs. St. Louis — Leafs stayed alive with a 5–3 home–ice triumph in Game 6.
1978 Stanley Cup QF vs. New York Islanders — Leafs avoided elimination at the Gardens, winning 5–2.
1977 Stanley Cup QF vs. Philadelphia — Flyers eliminated the Leafs with a 4–3 Game 6 win at MLG.
1976 Stanley Cup QF vs. Philadelphia — Darryl Sittler’s record–tying five goals kept the Leafs alive.
1971 Stanley Cup QF vs. New York Rangers — Ex–Leaf Bob Nevin won the series in OT of Game 6 at MLG.

Though Washington deserved to win last night’s match, I suspect there is plenty of scrap left in the Maple Leafs. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s a Kadri–Ovechkin carryover at the ACC on Sunday.


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