TORONTO (Apr. 5) — By this time next week, Toronto hockey fans will be watching their favorite team in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in four years… and the first time in 13 years after a full, 82–game schedule. Yes, somehow the Leafs will scratch out the requisite point to qualify during their final three games — all at home — against Tampa Bay Thursday night; Pittsburgh on Saturday and Columbus on Sunday. Or, the Lightning will yield the fatal point either at the Air Canada Centre; at Montreal on Friday or (yikes!) at home to Buffalo on Sunday. Clearly, that’s the one scenario the Leafs are hoping to avoid — still needing that point against the Blue Jackets Sunday eve while the Lightning hosts the mediocre Sabres.
But, I sense Toronto will have locked up a playoff berth before then.
With a half–week remaining in the season, the Leafs can reasonably face any of three opponents in the opening round: If it becomes the second wild card team in the Eastern Conference, Toronto will play Washington (which leads Pittsburgh by five points atop the Metropolitan Division; each club with three games remaining). Otherwise, the Leafs will encounter either Boston or Ottawa in a clash of Atlantic Division rivals, starting at home or on the road. At the moment, the Bruins and Senators each have 94 points; the Leafs, 93. Boston has clinched a playoff spot with 42 ROW’s (regulation or overtime wins) — more than any of the other four teams still in contention: Toronto, Ottawa, Tampa Bay or the New York Islanders.
Once into the Stanley Cup tournament, the Leafs will be rather anomalous, given the number of players taking part for the first time. With an excellent 11–3–2 record in their past 15 games at a point in the schedule when previous Toronto teams were collapsing or playing out the string, the Leafs are widely considered a hazardous opponent. Which may prove accurate, if the young guns are ready to kick it up a notch and Frederik Andersen continues his spate of terrific goaltending. If, however, a series evolves into trench warfare — hardly uncommon in the Stanley Cup playoffs — the Maple Leafs appear vulnerable.
TOM WILSON OF WASHINGTON LEANS ON MORGAN RIELLY DURING TUESDAY NIGHT’S GAME AT AIR CANADA CENTRE. THE CAPITALS BEAT THE LEAFS, 4–1. FRANK GUNN THE CANADIAN PRESS
And, I’m not overly swayed by the lop–sided result against Washington on Tuesday. Let’s be real — the home team was playing its third game in four nights; encountering the best club in the league, whose players rested in their Toronto hotel rooms while the Leafs prevailed at Buffalo on Monday. With the Capitals still needing to clinch first place in the Metro Division, a Toronto win would have been a colossal upset.
That said, the Leafs again wilted against a team that plays “heavy” at both ends of the ice. As they did in all three games of their California trip last month, when gaining only one of six points against Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose. The Maple Leafs are neither large nor belligerent up front and can be leaned on rather effectively by a ponderous opponent. It’s the reason Lou Lamoriello brought in veteran centers Brian Boyle (6–foot–6, 244 pounds) and Eric Fehr (6–foot–5, 212 pounds) prior to the trade deadline. Both are injured right now — Fehr likely done for the season with a suspected fracture of his left hand while Boyle departed Tuesday’s game after getting popped in the chest near center–ice by Tom Wilson of the Capitals.
If the Leafs are able to induce a track meet in a playoff series, their youth, speed and soft hands around the net will be difficult for any opponent. And, it’s a scenario that cannot be discounted, given the influx of high–end talent this season. The notion of the young Maple Leafs dictating the flow of a playoff game is hardly unimaginable. With Andersen providing assurance in goal, Toronto could indeed become a threat. More than likely, however, a lengthy playoff series will dissolve into more of a grind than the newbie Leafs have been accustomed to. Whether the club can make that adjustment is questionable.
One way or another, we’ll begin to find out a week from tonight.
Barring the unthinkable.
1987 PLAYOFFS — PART 1
In the post–1967 era, only one version of the Maple Leafs resembled the current team with respect to youth and firepower up front. Sadly for the Leafs and their fans, the club of 1986–87 had no defensive structure and limited coaching acumen. The late John Brophy was a popular and likable figure — legendary for his wild antics in the old Eastern Hockey League from 1955–73, where he fought and swung his stick to penalty records, including 325 minutes for Philadelphia and Long Island in 1963–64. In later years, he was hardly a scientific coach; more prone to losing his fabled temper and belittling players. As such, a young and talented Leafs team in the late–80’s continued to stagnate toward the end the worst decade in franchise history.
In the inept Norris Division, where all teams (St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago, Toronto and Minnesota) finished with sub–.500 records during the 1986–87 season, the Leafs made the playoffs with a 32–42–6 ledger for 70 points. Today, of course, a team with that total would miss the playoffs by more than 20. Not so in an era when 16 of 21 NHL clubs qualified. As mentioned, the Leafs had a splendid group of forwards, including Russ Courtnall, Rick Vaive, Steve Thomas, Wendel Clark, Gary Leeman, Tom Fergus, Dan Daoust, rookie Vincent Damphousse and late–season acquisition Mark Osborne. Toronto scored 286 goals that year (only twice, since then, has the club been more prolific in a season), but yielded 319. The club was terribly weak behind center–ice, with a makeshift blue line and spotty goaltending from Ken Wregget and Allan Bester.
Something, however, clicked in the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup tournament. The Leafs made the playoffs on the final Saturday of the 80–game schedule (above and below) by defeating Chicago, 3–1, at Maple Leaf Gardens. A 5–2 loss at Chicago the following night landed Toronto in fourth place and set up a clash with first–place St. Louis in the opening round. The previous spring, 1986, the Leafs shockingly swept the Blackhawks in a best–of–five preliminary round (Toronto finished 29 points behind Chicago in the Norris) and then extended the Blues to the limit in a seven–game Division final before bowing out.
So, St. Louis was hardly a foreign rival.
With the teams separated by only nine points (see below), the Leafs traveled to St. Louis for the first two games of the series at the old Arena on Oakland Ave. (original home of the Blues, from 1967–95).
The clubs would play the initial four games in a five–night span (as per schedule, bottom–right).
As you’ve probably noticed, I kept a detailed scrapbook during the 1987 playoffs, with stories and photos from the Toronto Star, Toronto Sun and Globe and Mail. Still alive were such legendary media figures as Jim Proudfoot, Rex MacLeod and Ken McKee of the Star. Al Strachan worked for the Globe and Mail. Wayne Parrish was sports editor of the Sun; Scott Morrison (now with Sportsnet) the Sun’s hockey writer.
In the end, Toronto pulled off an upset, with Wregget suddenly starring between the pipes. After splitting the first four games, the Leafs prevailed in the pivotal fifth match at St. Louis. Game 6, at Maple Leaf Gardens, is still remembered for a highlight–reel goal scored on a breakaway by plugger Brad Smith (a.k.a. Motor City Smitty) in the opening minutes. The Leafs won, 4–0, and again advanced to the second round of the playoffs.
Tending goal for St. Louis during that series was current Maple Leafs TV analyst Greg Millen. Also playing for the Blues was forward Mark Hunter, now the Leafs assistant general manager and chief bird–dog. Doug Gilmour was a star center for the Blues, still six years before he would nearly guide the Leafs into the 1993 Stanley Cup final. Future Toronto captain Rob Ramage patrolled the blue line for St. Louis and goalie Rick Wamsley, who would later play for and help coach the Leafs, backed up Millen.
On Toronto’s defense was current LEAFS–TV analyst Bob McGill.
Here are images from my scrapbooks of the Toronto–St. Louis first–round series:
GAME 1 — at St. Louis: Wednesday, Apr. 8, 1987
GAME 2 — at St. Louis: Thursday, Apr. 8, 1987
GAME 3 — at Toronto: Saturday, Apr. 11, 1987
GAME 4 — at Toronto: Sunday, Apr. 12, 1987
GAME 5 — at St. Louis: Tuesday, Apr. 14, 1987
GAME 6 — at Toronto: Thursday, Apr. 16, 1987
SADLY, YET UNKNOWINGLY, THE STAR PUBLISHED A PHOTO (TOP–LEFT) OF USHER JOHN–PAUL ROBY — WHO WORKED THE NORTH–MEZZANINE BLUES AND WOULD BE CONVICTED, IN 1999, OF MOLESTING DOZENS OF YOUNG BOYS AS PART OF A HEINOUS PEDOPHILE RING AT THE GARDENS. ROBY DIED IN PRISON OF A SUSPECTED HEART ATTACK IN NOVEMBER 2001.
HE HASN’T CHANGED A LOT IN THREE DECADES. YOU’LL RECOGNIZE GREG MILLEN (TOP–LEFT) AS THE ST. LOUIS GOALIE IN 1987, SHAKING HANDS WITH TORONTO COUNTERPART KEN WREGGET.
IN MY NEXT BLOG: ROUND 2 OF THE 1987 PLAYOFFS — LEAFS vs. DETROIT.