A much–more interesting study will, of course, abound if the Maple Leafs do not match or exceed their lofty expectations. Can you envision the national outcry when the Leafs unavoidably lapse into a four or five–game skid, as will every team in the NHL?
— Between The Posts, Oct. 2, 2018
TORONTO (Nov. 2) — Yes, the above words were written by yours truly one month ago today. In anticipation of the inevitable. And, before the Maple Leafs erupted from the gate as a clone of the 1984 Edmonton Oilers. Who’d a thunk this team would suffer from impotence? Any more than — analogously — a teen with raging hormones. But, hey, sh** happens. In the National Hockey League… and elsewhere.
As expected, a tsunami of panic has rolled over Leafs Nation on the cusp of a 2–4–0 skid in the past six games. Goals scored prior to the skid: 35 in seven starts (or five per match). Goals scored subsequently: seven in six starts (or 1.17 per game). More than a slight decline — one that began, predominantly, at Scotiabank Arena… and with Auston Matthews still in the line–up. As written in my previous blog (http://bit.ly/2qj1qJH), the home–ice thing is old hat. Inexplicable, perhaps, but consistent through the decades. The remarkable scoring abatement is more of a mystery, yet hardly beyond comprehension.
MITCH MARNER NEARLY SCORED SHORTHANDED AGAINST DALLAS IN THE SECOND PERIOD THURSDAY NIGHT. AS IT WERE, THE SLUMPING LEAFS GOT ONLY A LATE GOAL FROM PATRICK MARLEAU IN ANOTHER HOME–ICE DEFEAT. TORONTO IS 3–5–0 AT SCOTIABANK ARENA. NHL1 VIA GETTY IMAGES
Look at the Leafs when they were taking goalies to the wood–shed in the first couple of weeks. Who’s name (among others) was all over the score–sheet each night? Morgan Rielly. The club’s nearest facsimile to a front–line defenseman. Thirteen points (three goals, 10 assists) in the 6–1–0 start. Three points (one goal, two assists) in the 2–4–0 recession. Unlike the first seven games, the Leafs aren’t generating a morsel off the rush right now. Nothing. Zilch. Bupkes. Virtually all of their scoring chances are derived from neutral–zone turnovers; while skating on the powerplay, or with Frederik Andersen pulled for an extra attacker in a desperate final push. And, it brings me back to the point I’ve made a zillion times in this corner: Until the Maple Leafs acquire or develop a Norris Trophy type on the back end, this pattern will continue.
Though hockey has evolved mightily through the years, one aspect of the sport is unchanged: Most scoring thrusts originate in the defensive zone. Such was the case with Eddie Shore in the 1930’s; Doug Harvey in the 1950’s; Bobby Orr in the 1970’s; Denis Potvin and Paul Coffey in the 1980’s; Nicklas Lidstrom in the late–90’s and early–2000’s. To name an illustrious few that could do anything off the rush. Which the Maple Leafs frequently (and last) accomplished with Borje Salming and Ian Turnbull marshaling the puck northward four decades ago. Rielly, today, is an exceptional skater and a very good puck–handler. Under Mike Babcock, however, he appears to have neither the confidence nor the license to take liberties off the rush. Two or three times a game; often with the Leafs trailing and desperate for a goal, he’ll swing into flight — incursions that inevitably abort near the opposition blue line. Yet, during the course of 60 minutes, this rush–strategy is a minuscule part of the Leafs’ game–plan. And, no team — however–gifted up front — can rely exclusively on turnovers and odd–man situations to generate offense. Which Toronto is doing at the moment.
That said, I contend the Leafs are merely in a slump — enhanced among fans and media by the contrast of the first two weeks, when any missile aimed at the opposition goal lit the lamp. Even without Matthews and the un–signed William Nylander, there is sufficient talent to score at a far–greater clip than 1.17–per–game. And, to perform much–more efficiently on home ice. Unless… something thoroughly baffling and incomprehensible is at work. Similar to that which befell Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers after an apparently–breakthrough season in 2016–17 (103 points; a 33–point improvement and a first playoff appearance since losing to Carolina in the 2006 Stanley Cup final). No person alive would have forecast Edmonton to plummet as it did a year ago (by 25 points, missing the playoffs). Though the Oilers appear to be bouncing back early this season (7–4–1 after 12 games), they were possibly crushed last year by the weight of expectation. Which the Maple Leafs universally bore heading into the current campaign (remember Bodog listing Toronto as Stanley Cup favorite minutes after John Tavares signed in July?).
THE LEAFS SCORING WOES CONTINUED AGAINST DALLAS ON THURSDAY. TSN IMAGE
Perhaps the pre–schedule burden, combined with exceeding such–lofty anticipation in the first seven games, has spooked the Toronto skaters through the current slide; a situation magnified by losing Matthews for at least a month. Just like you and me, hockey players are human. They, too, worry and get stuck in their tracks. Which, if accurate, I suspect the Leafs will overcome. And, not very long from now.
50 YEARS AGO TONIGHT
Maple Leaf Gardens
Please don’t ask me how, but I do remember going to this game with my dad one–half–century ago tonight at Maple Leaf Gardens. It was the first time (of many to follow) seeing the Philadelphia Flyers — then in their second NHL season (Philly prevailed, 3–2). And, memorabilia–hoarder that I’ve always been, I still have the program from Nov. 2, 1968, with Mike Walton (top–left) on the cover. Here are some contents:
A STALWART ON THE BLUE LINE (AND DEFENSE–PARTNER OF TIM HORTON) DURING THE LEAFS’ STANLEY CUP DYNASTY (FOUR CHAMPIONSHIPS BETWEEN 1962 AND 1967), ALLAN STANLEY FINISHED HIS LONG NHL CAREER WEARING NO. 6 FOR THE FLYERS. HE WAS THE SUBJECT OF A PROGRAM–FEATURE, BY TORONTO STAR HOCKEY WRITER RED BURNETT.
BOTH PHILADELPHIA GOALIES, DOUG FAVELL AND BERNIE PARENT, WOULD ULTIMATELY PLAY FOR THE LEAFS. FLYERS’ DEFENSEMAN DICK CHERRY (6) IS THE YOUNGER BROTHER OF DONALD S. CHERRY. CENTER FORBES KENNEDY (22) WOULD BE TRADED TO THE LEAFS IN MARCH 1969 AND — ONE MONTH LATER — BECOME THE PRIME FIGURE IN A LEGENDARY PLAYOFF BRAWL AT BOSTON GARDEN.
PETERBOROUGH JUNIOR COACH ROGER NEILSON WOULD GUIDE THE LEAFS NINE YEARS LATER.
ALSO, 50 YEARS AGO TONIGHT (Nov. 2), THE RENOVATED MONTREAL FORUM OPENED FOR A GAME AGAINST GORDIE HOWE AND THE DETROIT RED WINGS. WHILE REMODELING WAS FINISHED, THE HABS PLAYED THEIR FIRST EIGHT GAMES OF THE SEASON ON THE ROAD (GOING 6–1–1). MONTREAL WOULD WIN ITS SECOND CONSECUTIVE STANLEY CUP IN 1969, DEFEATING THE ST. LOUIS BLUES.