Maybe Leafs Are Good Enough

TORONTO (Feb. 27) — Let me begin today by stressing that the trade deadline machinations on Monday only invigorated my pre–season pick of Tampa Bay defeating Nashville for the 2018 Stanley Cup (as per this blog: http://bit.ly/2xdXAqQ). With Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman and deadline acquisition Ryan McDonagh (from the Rangers), the Lightning can match the Predators’ blue line trio of Roman Josi, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm — so dominant throughout the Cup tournament last spring. Should goalies Andrei Vasilevskiy and Pekka Rinne perform to standard in the playoffs, my prediction could easily materialize.

Yes, it appears the Pittsburgh Penguins will have a say in the matter for a third consecutive year. No team has been hotter in the past three months than Boston: 25–4–4 in 33 games between Dec. 7 and Feb. 20. Winnipeg (37–16–9 for 83 points) has its best team since the Dale Hawerchuk–Paul MacLean–Randy Carlyle era of the mid–80’s. And, who could possibly disregard the kooky expansionists from Las Vegas (second in the National Hockey League standings: 41–16–5 for 87 points)? Moreover, it’s a cinch that at least one surprise team will emerge from the opening playoff round, as in virtually every Stanley Cup tournament.

Where, then, do the Toronto Maple Leafs rank in this equation?

Given his lone, minor tweak prior to Monday’s deadline (Tomas Plekanec from Montreal), one must assume general manager Lou Lamoriello counts his team among any of the Stanley Cup favorites. And, Lou could be bang–on. The Leafs have remained amid the NHL’s elite clubs for most of the 2017–18 schedule and have played their best hockey over the past five weeks: 13–2–1 in 16 games since Jan. 24. After Monday night’s shootout loss in Tampa, the Leafs stand fourth overall in the NHL with a record of 39–20–6 for 84 points. They need six victories in their final 17 games to tie the franchise mark (45) for most in one season; 19 of 34 available points to equal that record (103). Over the past two weeks, Mitch Marner may be the best forward in the NHL. And, Frederik Andersen is providing Toronto its most trustworthy netminding since the Curtis Joseph era (1998–2002). The Leafs have — at least once — defeated all the clubs ahead of them and in their vicinity (Tampa Bay, Nashville, Vegas, Winnipeg and Boston). Only Philadelphia (six points behind Toronto; 9–0–1 in its past 10 games) hasn’t been conquered, sweeping its three clashes with Toronto.

So, yeah — why shouldn’t the Leafs stand alongside the 2018 Cup favorites?

  
IN GAMES OF FEB. 12 AND FEB. 26, THE LEAFS HAVE EARNED THREE OF FOUR POINTS FROM LEAGUE–LEADING TAMPA BAY, DROPPING A 4–3 SHOOTOUT DECISION ON THE GULF COAST MONDAY NIGHT. SPORTSNET IMAGES

The answer probably lies with evidence. Tampa Bay and Nashville — my Cup favorites — have been to the final in the past three years: the Lightning losing to Chicago in 2015; the Predators to Pittsburgh last spring. The Penguins, of course, have won the past two NHL titles and are performing like champions once again. Boston won the Cup in 2011 and lost to Chicago in the 2013 final. Tuukka Rask, Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand are still a formidable, veteran nucleus. The Maple Leafs, conversely, have made the playoffs only once in a full, 82–game schedule during the salary–cap era (beginning in 2005–06) and have not advanced beyond the opening round since 2004. In their corner is the undeniable truth that last year’s Conference quarterfinal against Washington could have gone either way; the Capitals prevailed in six but five games went to overtime. It was an excellent tune–up, if you will, for a Toronto club that is deeper and more experienced heading into this year’s Cup tourney. Still, Mike Babcock’s crew is in “show–me” mode; until the Leafs manufacture a Stanley Cup challenge, only the wishful can predict such a result.

Though the Leafs are as skilled up front as any playoff–bound club, they are often mediocre behind center–ice — a consistent flaw in the second half–century of the franchise. Andersen is among the NHL’s premier stoppers, yet routinely over–worked and unlikely to bear sufficient fuel to last four grueling Stanley Cup rounds. The same malady — playoff fatigue — struck Joseph and Ed Belfour during the Pat Quinn era. If I were Babcock, I’d abandon my quest to finish ahead of Boston in the Atlantic Division and provide Andersen lots of rest in the final month of the schedule. If the big Dane plays 14 of the last 17 games, he’ll burn out at some point in the spring. And, given his work in a support role, there’s plenty of evidence that Curtis McElhinney can keep his club in the race for second spot in the Atlantic. To me, it’s common sense.

I would have been more optimistic about the Leafs had Lamoriello acquired another defenseman before the trade deadline. In that regard, McDonagh — going to T–Bay — was a double–whammy for Toronto. The puck–moving defensemen on the Leafs (Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Connor Carrick, Travis Dermott) are either too mistake–prone or too young. Dermott shows promise, but give the kid a break. Expecting playoff poise from a blue–liner with half–a–season’s NHL experience is foolhardy. As such, McDonagh, who the Maple Leafs strongly pursued, would have been a splendid add–on. Only time will tell if Lamoriello’s restraint prior to 3 p.m. Eastern on Monday narrowed an opportunity for the club this spring.

In post–deadline summation, it wouldn’t shock me if the Leafs win the 2018 Stanley Cup. Nor would it come as a surprise if they lose again in the opening round. Their biggest challenge in the East comes from within the division: Boston and Tampa Bay provide a gargantuan obstacle. The Leafs remain one player away from representing the Conference in the Stanley Cup final. Put Hedman in Toronto blue and white and the Atlantic roles reverse. But, you’ve read a variation of that too many times from yours truly. Haven’t you?

REF LOSES IT… CALLAHAN FOLLOWS

The Sportsnet cameras did terrific work Monday night in catching the emotion of a bizarre, second–period incident. Referee Gord Dwyer, clearly incensed with Tampa Bay veteran Ryan Callahan, lost his composure and fired Callahan’s loose glove into the Lightning bench. Broadcasters Paul Romanuk and Greg Millen were shocked by Dwyer’s stunt — mentioning it during the play — but less–bewildered than Callahan.

Here is the replay sequence:


CALLAHAN, THE FORMER RANGERS CAPTAIN, EXCHANGED WORDS WITH DWYER ON HIS WAY TO THE BENCH, AND STOOD INITIALLY (ABOVE) WITH HIS BACK TO THE ICE…

  
DWYER (TOP–LEFT) SKATED PAST THE BENCH AND FIRED THE GLOVE PAST AN ASTONISHED CALLAHAN, WHO IMMEDIATELY REACTED WITH SHOCK AND ANGER (ABOVE AND BELOW).

  
SAYING IT STRAIGHT


I was very impressed with the candid, objective work of the Sportsnet hockey panel during the first intermission of the Leafs–Lightning game on Monday. With former Leaf players Nick Kypreos (bottom–left) and Colby Armstrong (bottom–right) joining forever–Toronto host Daren Millard, a softer approach to a mediocre 5–on–3 Leafs powerplay might have been expected. Instead, Kypreos and Armstrong teed off on Mike Babcock for his refusal to deploy the blazing–hot Mitch Marner until the final six seconds of the two–man advantage. Not that questioning a coach should be the lone criterion for unbiased commentary. But, I found it refreshing that the former Toronto players refused to sugar–coat the issue. It was superb TV.

  
SHANNY’S GARDEN MILESTONE

  
While combing through the Nov. 27, 1987 issue of The Hockey News, I came upon a moment that Leafs president Brendan Shanahan will covet and remember for the rest of his life. NHL goal No. 1 of 656 — scored for the New Jersey Devils, at Madison Square Garden in New York, Nov. 10, 1987:


  
THE GAME SUMMARY (TOP–LEFT) FROM NEW JERSEY AT NEW YORK RANGERS ON NOV. 10, 1987, AS ROOKIE BENDAN SHANAHAN SCORES HIS FIRST NHL GOAL (ASSISTED BY CLAUDE LOISELLE AND CRAIG WOLANIN) AT 13:02 OF THE THIRD PERIOD. AND, AN OLD TSN AD (TOP–RIGHT) ON THE BACK–COVER.

ALSO IN THAT ISSUE…


OKAY… SO IT’S MY BLOG. 🙂

TURK’S LEGENDARY TALE

  
I’ve been re–reading the hilarious and brutally–honest autobiography of ex–NHL’er Derek Sanderson — comprised, six years ago, in conjunction with my friend Kevin Shea. Sanderson, known as “Turk” throughout his hockey career, left the Boston Bruins in 1972 after winning a second Stanley Cup and joined Philadelphia of the fledgling World Hockey Association. In the book, he recounted the now–mythical tale of what happened prior to the first–ever Blazers’ home game, at the Philadelphia Civic Center, on Oct. 13, 1972.

You’ll laugh. I promise.




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