TORONTO (Apr. 7) — For the first time this season, the young, brash Maple Leafs appear frightened.
After rolling over the Sabres in Buffalo on Monday — and with a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference staring them in the face — the Leafs have cowered on home ice. They were shoved around by the Washington Capitals on Tuesday; fatigue undoubtedly a factor while playing a third game in four nights. And, perhaps a mulligan for the boys in blue with two points needed on Thursday at the Air Canada Centre against injury–riddled Tampa Bay. The 4–1 romp by the Lightning, however, looked and felt a whole lot different. It reflected largely what I have been preaching about for years in this corner — that a team with a dominant, Norris Trophy–caliber defenseman can win a big game, virtually at any time. Victor Hedman was the best player on the ice by so many lengths, it appeared, occasionally, there was no one else in uniform.
The game also indicated, rather abjectly, that the Leafs’ top player (and Calder Trophy favorite), Auston Matthews, had best steel himself for a physical pounding once a playoff spot is finally secured. The Lightning offered Matthews no respect; neither will the Capitals, Bruins nor Senators in the opening round of the Stanley Cup tournament. Yes, the Leafs will be in the playoffs; Thursday night’s clunker notwithstanding.
Though it seems rather wishful at this moment, Mike Babcock’s crew will find a way to scratch out a couple of points against Pittsburgh and Columbus on the weekend at the ACC, thereby putting to rest Tampa Bay (facing elimination again tonight in Montreal) and the equally–stubborn New York Islanders. The Penguins and Blue Jackets are locked into the No. 2 and 3 spots in the Metropolitan Division and will clash in the opening playoff round, starting in Pittsburgh. Neither game here is meaningful to the visitors, who will likely rest (or limit ice–time among) a number of their top players. The Leafs, though squeezing their sticks, have shown enough character and bounce–back this season to not be swept at home in their final four games.
DESPITE CONSECUTIVE LOSSES AT HOME, THE EASTERN STANDINGS STILL FAVOR THE LEAFS IN THEIR PLAYOFF QUEST, THOUGH IT NOW APPEARS MORE LIKELY AS A WILD CARD ENTRY THAN A TOP–3 IN THE ATLANTIC DIVISION. BUT, DON’T DISCOUNT THE CLUB PICKING UP POINTS ON THE WEEKEND, AS PITTSBURGH AND COLUMBUS ARE LOCKED INTO THEIR PLAYOFF BRACKETS. TSN IMAGE
With all the chatter about Babcock and John Tortorella of Columbus going head–to–head for the Jack Adams Award as National Hockey League coach–of–the–year, how ’bout some love for Jon Cooper? Without key players Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson and Ryan Callahan — and having been deprived of Ben Bishop and Brian Boyle at the trade deadline — Cooper has kept his team in the playoff hunt. T–Bay is 6–1–1 since an embarrassing loss at home to Arizona on Mar. 21. A seventh win, tonight at the Bell Centre, will further tighten sphincters around here. The Lightning coach has done a superb and remarkably–understated job.
As for the Leafs, there must be a transition in the final two games from tentative to assertive. Which shouldn’t be overly difficult given how surprisingly well the club has played. Against the Capitals — and, more–so, the Lightning — there was a tendency to recede, particularly among the defensemen, who backed in toward Frederik Andersen and allowed good shooting angles. In the absence of a player that can dictate tempo (Hedman, Erik Karlsson, etc.), the Toronto defenders have to be more forceful near the blue line, thereby slowing the opposition rush. More importantly, the Maple Leafs, as a team, need to stop waiting for something bad to happen (inevitably, it will) and start making something good happen.
As per the overwhelming majority of this productive season.
40 YEARS AGO TODAY
at Exhibition Stadium, Toronto
How on earth can four decades have gone by since that unforgettable, snowy afternoon by the lake–shore when the Toronto Blue Jays played their first–ever game? Yes, it was 40 years ago today — Thursday, Apr. 7, 1977 — that Bill Singer threw the first pitch to Ralph Garr of the Chicago White Sox (called a strike by plate–umpire Nestor Chylak); that the previously unheard–of Doug Ault smacked a pair of home runs, and that 44,649 braved the anything–but–baseball–like elements at frigid Exhibition Stadium. I was among that throng, sitting high up in Sec. 10 down the first–base line, and I can guarantee that no more than 25,000 fans were still in the ballpark by the fifth inning. I bailed out in the sixth — mostly because I had frozen solid; partly because I wanted to get home and thaw out before turning around and heading to Maple Leaf Gardens for Game 2 of the Leafs–Pittsburgh Penguins best–of–three preliminary playoff round.
In the process of cleaning out his home in North Toronto for a move to a downtown condominium, my good friend Joel Colomby plunked a heavy garbage–bag into my arms. “Here, this will be good for your blog,” said the long–time assistant sports editor of the Toronto Sun. Inside the bag was a stack of original newspaper pages Joel had saved during his youth — including those from 40 years ago this afternoon, when the Toronto Star routinely came out with early and final editions. Those pages, worn but still entirely legible, are featured here, as the Blue Jays pounded out a 9–5 win over the ChiSox.
MY FIRST GAME TICKET
COVER OF THE FIRST BLUE JAYS PROGRAM
THE TEAM ROSTERS ON APR. 7, 1977