Leafs Are The Better Team

TORONTO (Apr. 18) — To borrow a legendary phrase from my ol’ pal, Dave (Tiger) Williams, the Washington Capitals are “done like dinner”. Kaput in every way except officially. And, that will soon follow.

Give the youthful Toronto Maple Leafs mounds of credit. But, also understand that the Capitals — once this series is over — will be recognized as the biggest chokers in Stanley Cup history. Without peer. This was proven; in fact immortalized, early in the second period of last night’s 4–3 Toronto victory by the most laughable 5–on–3 powerplay I can remember. And, for a full two minutes. With Matt Martin serving a double–minor for an altercation with Tom Wilson, and the President’s Trophy winner leading the game, 3–1, the Capitals threw the puck around like a swarm of drunken sailors. There was no form or strategy to the two–man–advantage, which Washington effectively killed by itself. As always, the Caps tried to set up Alex Ovechkin for his patented one–timer from the top of the faceoff circle. Only this time, Ovie fanned on one attempt and blasted another directly into the logo of Frederik Andersen’s blue jersey. With the Leafs on the verge of certain defeat, Washington exhibited the killer–instinct of a poodle. The overtime loss (on Tyler Bozak’s early powerplay re–diection) was as richly–earned by the Capitals as was the victory by the Leafs.


TYLER BOZAK (42) RE–DIRECTS NAZEM KADRI’S CENTERING PASS INTO THE WASHINGTON GOAL TO GIVE THE LEAFS A 4–3 WIN AT 1:36 OF OVERTIME LAST NIGHT. CBC IMAGE

At the moment, therefore, it’s just a matter of time. Whether the Leafs win four consecutive games, or take the series on home ice next Sunday, this round will not go beyond six. Though all three matches have extended past regulation, the Leafs are getting better as each minute ticks off the clock. Yes, that game here against the Capitals on Apr. 4 was an aberration. After the 4–1 Washington romp, there was talk of the Capitals being too large; too belligerent and too deep for the Maple Leafs. Turns out the home team was simply tired, having won at Buffalo the previous night while the Washington players lounged in their Toronto hotel rooms. Leafs Nation prayed for a first–round match–up with Ottawa and sulked when a 3–2 loss at home to Columbus on the final night of the regular season ensured the opponent would be Washington.

It was the most critical point the Leafs have never earned.

What we’re seeing in this series is not a mirage. The Leafs are faster than Washington and at least as effective while playing with the man advantage. Toronto carried not an ounce of baggage into the playoffs, having surprised much of the hockey world with its 26–point improvement over last season. The Capitals arrived with a Hummer on the back of every player. Many of us figured a split on home ice in the first two games would un–nerve the Caps and their jittery fans. Both factions must be spooked beyond belief right now. You just know they’re muttering “same old Capitals” in the Beltway region, while giddy followers around here are delightfully soaking in the unexpected. And, dreaming — perhaps not whimsically — about a long, wondrous trek through the 2017 Stanley Cup tournament.

  
LEAF PLAYERS MOB TYLER BOZAK SECONDS AFTER HIS OVERTIME WINNING GOAL IN GAME 3. CBC IMAGES

I can tell you, first–hand, that it’s starting to feel like 1993 in these parts. The Leafs do not have a Doug Gilmour to carry them through the Conference playoffs, but this team is deeper up front and surprisingly resilient on the back end. Martin Marincin, for example, has stepped up big–time the past two games (though he was apparently hurt in the second period last night). Matt Hunwick has been a beast. Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner are playing with abundant confidence — particularly the latter. And, Nazem Kadri is proving why I contend he is the Leafs’ most valuable player (Andersen notwithstanding). Kadri’s rambunctious shift, midway through the first period, got the locals moving while down, 2–0. He twice steamrolled Brooks Orpik — first in the corner; then as the two players skated toward the bench for a line–change. The Air Canada Centre crowd, deadened by the early Washington goals, came alive and Auston Matthews scored moments later. No player on the Leafs can establish tempo like Kadri. When he’s going full bore, the seven–year veteran is undeniably the club’s sparkplug. He has grown miles under Mike Babcock.

I suspect that Washington can — and likely will — kick it up a notch in Game 4 on Wednesday. But, I don’t anticipate the Leafs taking their collective foot off the pedal. Confidence must be soaring among these youthful upstarts, and there’s nothing wrong with swagger at playoff time. I wasn’t sure the Leafs could dictate momentum in this series. Now, I’m certain they can. As the Washington players have become frightfully aware. Moreover, the Capitals have nothing to fall back on, emotionally. They have gagged in every playoff spring of the Ovechkin era. Not once has Washington gotten over the hump and into the Conference championship, let alone the Stanley Cup final. No player can look around the dressing room after three games of this series and say, “don’t worry, things will be alright.” It never has been for this group, which routinely makes a mockery of the 82–game regular schedule.


SMILE SAYS IT ALL. TYLER BOZAK IS CONGRATULATED BY AUSTON MATTHEWS AFTER HIS OT WINNER. CBC IMAGE

Were Lou Lamoriello or Brendan Shanahan to read this, they’d send me a letter–bomb. Neither man — nor Babcock — wants to hear anything about the series being over; not with a slim, 2–1 lead in games. But, seriously, how much better can Washington play? And, who expects the Leafs to suddenly lose their chutzpah? Matthews, Bozak, Kadri, Mitch Marner, Connor Brown and Co. are gaining confidence with each period. Given that trend, it seems highly unlikely that Toronto can lose three of the remaining four games.

By the way — and somewhat remarkably — the Leafs have gone to overtime in the first three games of a playoff round for the first time since the 1951 Stanley Cup final. Yeah… 66 years ago. That series, against Montreal, is immortalized for Bill Barilko’s OT winner at Maple Leaf Gardens in Game 5. Barilko, as many hockey fans are aware, was lost a few weeks later in a plane crash while on a fishing trip to northern Ontario. His remains were not discovered until 1962, when the Leafs next won the Stanley Cup. Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip put it on paper and in song with his monster hit, “50 Mission Cap”.

Wonder what they’ll be writing about this group of Leafs some years from now?

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

10 comments on “Leafs Are The Better Team

  1. After watching the Caps build a 2 – 0 lead in the first five minutes last night and then throw it away like a used gum wrapper, I’ll say this.

    Washington is a team that proves again that you can have the greatest regular season, but if you don’t show up for each and every game of the playoffs, you’re toast.

    Right now I bet Trotz is wondering if he survives if the Caps completely fold.

  2. Right about Tiger, Howard. He said those words to me in Pittsburgh in ’77 just after the Zamboni almost crushed my foot as it exited the ice. Almost but not quite over my toes. But painful and I may have been wincing on camera while Tiger spoke. Years later, Christie Blatchford reported it happened in Philly.
    Brian M.

  3. Please Howard, could we stop counting our chickens before they’re etc etc

    The Leafs looked lost in the first five minutes of last night’s game and should the Caps put out a 60 minute effort they are a very, very good team.

    I’m not at all knocking what our guys have achieved thus far, but PLEASE let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

      1. Fair enough. I guess I am nervous. It’s just that over confidence on the part of fans can leak into a team’s psyche and if the Leafs think the Caps are “done like dinner” they could be in for an unpleasant surprise.

  4. Although I hope you’re correct I’m also with Lou and Shanahan. Enjoyed the article but I’m not taking anything for granted. Case in point Tiger Williams uttered those words after the Leafs won the first two games against the Flyers in the spectrum during the 1977 playoffs in the quarter-finals. Alas, the Leafs went on to lose the next four games and thus the series in six games.

    1. Actually, Mike, Tiger first made the comment about Pittsburgh during the ’77 best-of-three preliminary playoff round (“them Penguins are done like dinner”). And, he was correct. He may have repeated it after the second game of the Philly series that year.

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