TORONTO (Aug. 7) — If you’re a downtrodden fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs after Thursday night’s blown, three–goal lead against the Columbus Blue Jackets, understand that it has happened. Your team did come back from a game down in a Stanley Cup qualifying round. True, we need to go back 45 years, to the spring of 1975, but I remember it as if yesterday. And, the rebound occurred, in nearly bizarre circumstances, against a team that was far superior to the Maple Leafs during the regular season.
From 1975–81, the National Hockey League conducted best–of–three preliminary rounds involving the lower–eight seeds in the Stanley Cup tournament. First–place teams in each of the four Conferences received a bye into the quarterfinals. The next eight clubs were aligned by points accrued during the 80–game regular schedule — No. 1 vs. No. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6 and 4 vs. 5 — the higher–ranked team getting home–ice advantage (Games 1 and 3). The Leafs were in the most–perilous spot: No. 8, with a best–of–three clash against the top–seeded Los Angeles Kings. L.A. had out–pointed Toronto by 27 (105–78) and crafted a lopsided 4–0–1 mark in five games, outscoring the Leafs, 24–7. The two meetings at the Los Angeles Forum resulted in 4–0 and 8–0 Kings victories. Needless to say, Toronto was overwhelmingly favored to be dispatched by L.A. You may argue that the ’75 series was a best–of–three; not a best–of–five, as today. But, the Toronto–Columbus round essentially became a best–of–three after the clubs split the first two games. At the moment, the Blue Jackets lead, 1–0, and can eliminate the Leafs later tonight at Scotiabank Arena.
JERSEYS WORN BY THE KINGS AND LEAFS IN THE 1975 PLAYOFFS. COURTESY NHLUNIFORMS.COM
The task, in 1975, became tougher when the Leafs dropped the opener at the Forum on Apr. 8. I remember the game not being televised by CBC because of the 1975 Academy Awards. It was shown on a big screen at Maple Leaf Gardens and just more than 6,000 fans attended. Those at home had to listen on radio; the match beginning at 11 p.m. Eastern. It appeared the Kings would prevail in regulation, but Ron Ellis beat Rogie Vachon at 18:30 of the third period, forcing overtime. That’s when future Leafs coach Mike Murphy provided the dagger — taking passes from Gene Carr and Larry Brown to score on Gord McRae (remember him?) at 8:53 of the first extra period. Two nights later, at the Gardens, it was Toronto surviving in overtime. Murphy, the rat, scored both Los Angeles goals for a 2–1 lead nearing the midway mark of the third period. But, lumbering defenseman Dave Dunn knotted the count, forcing another sudden–death scenario. Once again, the home team prevailed, as Blaine Stoughton took a cross–feed from Dave Keon and beat Rogie Vachon at 10:19 of the first overtime. Series deadlocked, 1–1. At which point, the bizarre element occurred.
The L.A. Forum was booked for a concert two nights later, which meant the Leafs and Kings would have to play Game 3 on Saturday afternoon. Kings’ owner, Jack Kent Cooke, felt his club “wouldn’t draw flies” in that scenario and he somehow talked the NHL into conducting the decisive match on Friday night, 24 hours after Game 2 in Toronto. Even a casual hockey fan knows the league would never schedule consecutive–night games across three time zones. But, this happened in the ’75 playoffs and the Leafs, shockingly, were provided an edge by owner Harold Ballard. Normally a skinflint, Ballard arranged for a charter aircraft to ferry the Leafs back to California; the club departing immediately after its Game 2 triumph. The Kings went home on a commercial flight the next morning, the day of Game 3. Which also turned into a nail–biter.
KINGS OWNER JACK KENT COOKE, A NATIVE OF HAMILTON, ONT., STANDS OUTSIDE THE LOS ANGELES FORUM WHILE UNDER CONSTRUCTION IN 1967. COOKE’S FORUM PLAYED HOST TO GAMES 1 AND 3 OF THE KINGS–MAPLE LEAFS PRELIMINARY PLAYOFF ROUND IN APRIL 1975.
George Ferguson scored for Toronto in the first period; Inge Hammarstron in the second, and the visitors took a 2–0 lead into the final frame. McRae performed acrobatics in the Toronto goal, thereby stymieing the Kings until Don Kozak scored with 6:51 left in regulation. The unheralded Leafs netminder then withstood a late Los Angeles push, stopping 48 shots in all, and the Maple Leafs won their first playoff round since the 1967 Stanley Cup. It was a stunning upset of a team much superior to Toronto than the Blue Jackets were this past season; Toronto and Columbus each accruing 81 points. So, Leafs Nation, never say never.
The Leafs, in fact, were masters of this best–of–three qualifying round, prevailing in 1975–76–77–78 and 1979. In ’77, Toronto faced Pittsburgh for the second consecutive year (summaries, below), winning the opener at the old Civic Arena. Game 2 took place at the Gardens on Apr. 7, hours after the Toronto Blue Jays played their first–ever match, defeating the Chicago White Sox at snowy Exhibition Stadium. The Penguins bolted to a 3–0 first–period lead, only to have the home side roar back to tie. But, two late goals by the visitors knotted the series. The decisive match, on a Saturday night, in Pittsburgh, turned into the Darryl Sittler–Lanny McDonald show. The linemates combined for three goals and nine points in 5–2 victory. Sittler had a chance to ice the game, and the series, into an empty net in the final minute. Instead he slowed up and waited for McDonald to come into position, feeding his winger for a hattrick. The selfless gesture prompted a phone call to Sittler from Bobby Orr, who’d been watching the game on TV.
When the Maple Leafs swept the Atlanta Flames in the 1979 best–of–three preliminary round (Apr. 12), they scored an existing Stanley Cup–record three goals in 23 seconds of the first period in Game 2 at the Gardens — Sittler connecting against Dan Bouchard at 4:04 and 4:16; Ron Ellis at 4:27. So, look out Columbus!
WHAT HAPPENED ON THURSDAY? It’s simple, and we’ve seen it multiple times in hockey. The Leafs bolted to a 3–0 lead over the Blue Jackets in the second period; felt they had the game in the bag, and stopped working. Columbus, under John Tortorella, never stops working and clawed its way back to even in the third before prevailing late in the first overtime. Yes, it was a crushing defeat for the Blue and White, but there is precious little time to chew on it with an elimination game tonight at SBA (Sportsnet, 8 p.m.). Though I liberally compared what could happen between the Leafs and Blue Jackets with the Toronto–Los Angeles example in 1975, I continue to warn against equating this made–for–TV Stanley Cup competition to anything in the past. With empty arenas, no–such–thing as home–ice advantage and a nearly five–month gap since the last games of the regular season, this event warrants the ultimate asterisk. Therefore, consigning the Maple Leafs as “choke–artists” or concluding they’ll never win a playoff series with the current roster, as fans of the club are doing today, is a stretch. As big a stretch as it would be if the Leafs rebounded to win the qualifying round in Game 5. Watch and enjoy. Pray that no one contracts COVID–19. But, understand this is nothing we’ve seen before. And, hopefully, not an example of what we may witness in the future.
PIERRE–LUC DUBOIS OF COLUMBUS WINS GAME 3 THURSDAY NIGHT AT SCOTIABANK ARENA WITH A BACKHAND OVER FREDERIK ANDERSEN’S SHOULDER LATE IN THE FIRST OVERTIME. THE BLUE JACKETS CAN ELIMINATE THE MAPLE LEAFS IN GAME 4 TONIGHT. NATHAN DENETTE THE CANADIAN PRESS
Parting question: If you are Sheldon Keefe, would you switch to No. 2 goalie Jack Campbell for tonight’s elimination match, as is Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan with Tristan Jarry (instead of Matt Murray) for Game 4 against Montreal? Does Frederik Andersen warrant a fourth start against Columbus with his performance on Thursday night?