Where Are The Big Sticks?

TORONTO (Apr. 16) — As is common in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Maple Leafs–Washington series will likely be determined by goaltending. And, there is virtually nothing to choose from between Frederik Andersen and Braden Holtby after two games — each going to overtime; each club prevailing once.

Another determining factor will be the star skaters on each team; almost all of whom were quiet at the Verizon Center. None of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Nazem Kadri recorded a point. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom each scored one goal. T.J. Oshie had two assists. If Kasperi Kapanen and Justin Williams are left to dictate the remainder of the series, there is no way to forecast the outcome.

A NEW(ish) MAPLE LEAFS FAN!


SIX–MONTH–OLD MARIANA RESENDES HAS HER PLAYOFF GEAR.

Given the past decade–and–a–bit, home ice should not be a hurdle for the Maple Leafs in Games 3, 4 and, possibly, 6. Consider this: While the Leafs have missed the playoffs during 10 of 12 seasons in the post–2005 lockout era, the Capitals have qualified in nine of 12; six times accumulating more than 100 points. Yet, Toronto holds a 10–9–1 edge over Washington in games played at the Air Canada Centre during the Ovechkin era, which began in 2005–06. Keeping Ovechkin relatively at bay could be another matter. The future Hall–of–Fame winger has 60 points (33 goals) in 42 career games against the Blue and White. He did, however, slip from 50 goals last season to 33 this year. So, perhaps, his most prolific days are behind him.

If not, the Leafs hope that he stays quiet for the next week or so.

SUNDAY’S LOCAL PAGES


  

  

  
BUSY SPORTS DAY HERE


Four of Toronto’s five major professional teams were in action on Saturday. The Blue Jays walked off Baltimore at Rogers Centre in the afternoon on a ninth–inning home run by Kendrys Morales. The Raptors fell apart in the second half at Air Canada Centre and got blown out by Milwaukee in Game 1 of their first–round NBA series. Toronto F.C., last year’s runner–up in Major League Soccer, lost 2–1 at Columbus and fell to 1–1–4 on the season. And, the Leafs, of course, knocked off the Washington Capitals in double–overtime.

Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League were in the off–season.

The last time this happened was Oct. 17, 2015 — a Saturday. Toronto F.C. played at Columbus. The Blue Jays were in Kansas City for Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. The Argonauts hosted Calgary at Rogers Centre. And, the Maple Leafs were on the road, in Pittsburgh. Only the Raptors did not suit up.

Going a step further was my press box pal, Rob Del Mundo, who found a day in which six Toronto teams were in action. Apr. 5, 2008 — also a Saturday. Toronto F.C. lost 4–1 at D.C. United. The Raptors lost 99–90 at New Jersey. The Blue Jays routed the Boston Red Sox 10–2 at Rogers Centre. The Leafs were beaten 3–1 at Montreal. The American Hockey League Toronto Marlies were blanked 6–0 in Winnipeg by the Manitoba Moose. And the Toronto Rock of Major League Lacrosse lost 9–6 to Rochester at the Air Canada Centre.

Only the Argos, again, were not in season.

Good find, Rob!

WHAT ON EARTH?

  
Put up your hands — all of you — that predicted Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne would have two more scoring points than Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Artemi Panarin, Duncan Keith… and the entire Chicago Blackhawks team after the first two games of the playoffs. C’mon, put up your hands.

I thought so.

The Hawks getting blown out by a composite 7–0 at the United Center ranks among the most astonishing developments in recent Stanley Cup history. Rubbing salt in the Chicago wound is Rinne — with two shutouts… and two assists. Joel Quenneville must be ready to strangle someone. The three–time Stanley Cup champion since 2010 has routinely made life miserable for opposing teams, with a 29–8 home record in the past three playoff years. To lose consecutively at the Madhouse on Madison… and fail to score a goal?

Well, it’s no wonder the Blackhawks were serenaded to the dressing room after Saturday night’s 5–0 loss.

Perhaps this is an aberration and Chicago will settle down on the road in Games 3 and 4 (at Bridgestone Arena, Monday and Thursday). If any team is capable of rebounding, it is Quenneville’s group. We shall see.

CHAMPS LOOKING TO SWEEP

Pay no attention to my brilliant forecast of the Pittsburgh Penguins losing their first–round series to the Columbus Blue Jackets in six games. The defending Stanley Cup champs appear well on their way to the Eastern Conference semifinals with a 3–0 lead on the Jackets. American–born center Jake Guentzel (Omaha, Neb.) completed a hattrick (bottom–left, courtesy Sportsnet) at 13:10 of overtime tonight (Sunday) to give the Penguins a stranglehold. Game 4 is Tuesday night, also at Nationwide Arena.

  
KILLER TURF

If professional athletes today were more prone to freedom–of–speech, you’d hear lots of public bickering from baseball players over the field conditions at Rogers Centre. The Astro Turf 3D–Extreme may be among the most advanced artificial surfaces available, but it generates the most complaints in Major League Baseball. And, the Toronto Blue Jays must endure the stuff 81 times a year. Preferring to not bite the hand that feeds them, the Toronto players are good company men — generally refraining from criticism of ownership (Rogers Communications). They also likely realize that airing laundry in public will not alter the situation. Opposition managers, in town for a three or four–game series, frequently rotate outfielders into the designated hitter’s role to save wear–and–tear from the turf (and potential injury). Rogers Centre and Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. (Tampa Bay Rays) feature the only non–grass surfaces in the Majors.


THE ROGERS CENTRE ASTRO–TURF LOOKS PRETTY, BUT IS GENERALLY DESPISED. SPORTSNET IMAGE

The home of the Blue Jays is also the only stadium, to my knowledge, in Major League history without an actual warning track. The perimeter is merely rust–painted turf — the same surface as the rest of the field. The track is supposed to be a dirt–surface in order to provide a different feel, thereby “warning” players of proximity to the fence. Inexplicably, it disappeared when Rogers installed a dirt infield prior to last season. How the Major League Baseball Players Association allows for such a hazard is beyond me. The safety of any outfielder sprinting after a deep fly–ball is routinely compromised at the Blue Jays stadium.

A classic example occurred in the bottom of the eighth inning today (Sunday), when Baltimore center–fielder Adam Jones crashed hard into the fence while reaching for a long drive off the bat of Toronto’s Justin Smoak. Luckily for Jones, he was merely shaken up and stayed in the game. But, he had no chance of knowing how close he was to the wall. It’s incredible that the MLBPA doesn’t put up a stink over this.

  
ADAM JONES OF THE ORIOLES WAS FORTUNATE TO ESCAPE INJURY WHEN PLOWING INTO THE CENTER–FIELD WALL ON SUNDAY. AT ROGERS CENTRE — AND ONLY AT ROGERS CENTRE — THE WARNING TRACK IS RUST–PAINTED TURF; SAME SURFACE AS THE REST OF THE FIELD. IT’S A TRAVESTY. SPORTSNET IMAGES 

There was much talk about the Blue Jays having a grass field for the 2018 season. But, Rogers chose to not spend the money for installation and upkeep. Clearly with instruction from above, general manager Mark Shapiro said this to reporters in mid–December 2015: “My opinion is, we don’t need it. My opinion is, clearly (natural grass) would be better. It’s just a question of the alternatives, and what we are going to have to choose between.” In fact, there is no choice. It’s either natural grass like the rest of the Majors… or the limb–pounding stuff at Rogers Centre today. Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, ownership is sticking with the latter.

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Speaking of the 2–10 Blue Jays, they look dead.

Not so in the standings; it’s far–too early for that. But, just lifeless.

Injuries to key players Josh Donaldson, Aaron Sanchez and J.A. Happ will not help the club emerge from its quagmire. And losing takes an immense toll on professional athletes. To me, however, the Jays are missing such upbeat personalities from the past as Edwin Encarnacion, Dioner Navarro, David Price, Ben Revere… even Munenori Kawasaki. In the final three months of the 2015 season, this was a happy, winning team.

It is anything but right now.

1987 PLAYOFFS PART 2

Now that Leaf fans are in a better mood, how about taking a 30–year journey into the past?

In PART 1 of this reflection on the 1987 Stanley Cup playoffs, I featured an opening–round upset of St. Louis, during which Brad Smith (a.k.a. Motor City Smitty) began Game 6 with a highlight–reel goal on a breakaway.

It was the winning tally in a 4–0 Toronto triumph at Maple Leaf Gardens that eliminated the Blues and set up a Round 2 Norris Division clash with the Detroit Red Wings.

On three occasions since 1967, the Leafs have won the first two games of a best–of–seven series on the road, only to be eliminated. First, it was a quarterfinal match–up with Philadelphia in 1977. And, most recently, an opening–round set with Chicago after the lockout–abbreviated schedule of January–to–May 1995. In between, the Leafs went to Joe Louis Arena and pummeled the Red Wings in the first two matches of the 1987 Norris Division final. After dropping Game 3 at the Gardens, Toronto won again — on an overtime goal by forward Mike Allison. The Leafs were one victory away from encountering Wayne Gretzky and the dynastic Edmonton Oilers in the Stanley Cup semifinals.

  
Here, in my scrapbook pages from the Toronto Star, Toronto Sun and Globe and Mail, I recap that exciting four–game start to the ’87 series. Ultimately, a spate of injury led to another version of the famed “Toronto Collapse” — nearly patented by our city’s sports teams since the late–1960’s. The Leafs folded and dropped the final three games to Detroit by 10–2 composite score; getting blanked in Games 5 and 7 at the Joe.

The series began on Apr. 21, a Tuesday. Three nights earlier, the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders played the longest game, at the time, in the history of television — and the fourth–longest to that point in Stanley Cup annals. Pat LaFontaine of the Islanders beat goalie Bob Mason with a turn–around slapshot along the ice at 8:47 of the fourth overtime to win the deciding seventh match. Kelly Hrudey, today of Hockey Night In Canada, played goal for New York. Bob Cole called the game on CBC and I’ll never forget watching it with two cousins at my apartment near Eglinton Ave. and Allen Rd. here in Toronto. I was 28.

Remarkably, that game is now the tenth–longest in Stanley Cup history. Between 1996 and 2008, five games went beyond 68 minutes and 47 seconds of extra time. Today, the longest Stanley Cup match in television history is the third–longest of all time — Philadelphia winning at Pittsburgh (May 4–5, 2000) on a goal by Keith Primeau at 2:01 of the fifth overtime. Watched that one, too. The game ended at 2:35 a.m. EDT.

Here are accounts of the Islanders–Capitals marathon from 30 years ago in the New York papers:

  

  
LEAFSDETROIT SERIES


GAME 1 — Toronto at Detroit: Tuesday, April 21, 1987.

  
  

  
LEAFS NEWS BETWEEN GAMES 1 AND 2

  
GAME 2 — Toronto at Detroit: Thursday, Apr. 23, 1987.


  
  
  
PRIOR TO GAME 3 AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS

  
GAME 3 — Detroit at Toronto: Saturday, Apr. 25, 1987.

  

  
  
GAME 4 — Detroit at Toronto: Monday, Apr. 27, 1987.

  
  

  
  
  
BUT, THAT WAS ALL SHE WROTE, LEAF FANS.

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