TORONTO (Mar. 14) — As it pertains to followers of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the world as we knew it Monday afternoon came to an end at roughly 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday. Or, at least, to a giant pause.
When the Chicago Blackhawks, not to be confused with clubs that won the Stanley Cup three times between 2010 and 2015, erupted to a 4–0 first–period edge at Scotiabank Arena — and did so with the greatest of ease — all hope appeared to drain from the well of Leafs Nation. Perhaps understandably. After all, the Maple Leafs, in the past fortnight, have authored arguably the three most–pathetic performances of the Mike Babcock era — beginning with the 6–1 no–show (Feb. 28) in the forgettable return of John Tavares to the Nassau Coliseum; continuing with Monday night’s thorough beat–down (6–2) by the Tampa Bay Lightning here in town, and climaxing with the abominable first 20 minutes against Chicago on Wednesday. Though the Leafs nearly came all the way back against the National Hockey League’s 30th–ranked defensive club (and its No. 2 goalie), the Blackhawks left town with a 5–4 victory. Now, here we are — awaiting Friday night’s visit by the Philadelphia Flyers, who the Maple Leafs pounded, 6–0, at SBA on Nov. 24. And, really, folks, what has the club lost since Monday afternoon other than a couple of mildly–important games?
You want real loss, Leafs Nation? Have a gander, below, at the front page of Tuesday’s Toronto Sun — the morning after the Tampa Bay game. Not to become melancholy, but it screams out with perspective and paradox: a bad hockey game… and an entire Brampton, Ont. family obliterated in the Ethiopian Airways crash. So, honestly, let’s try to keep the lid on a pair of lousy home–ice performances by the Maple Leafs.
Your hockey club will make the playoffs and encounter Boston in the opening round. Again. If anything, the Leafs may have cost themselves more of a chance to finish second in the Atlantic Division and procure the extra home game against the Bruins, who also lost consecutively after a wondrous, 16–0–3 eruption in 19 games. Given the Leafs’ middling 21–14–1 record on Bay Street this season, I’m not sure the club has lost anything… even with the dreaded notion of a deciding match at TD Garden in April. It is again worth noting that only one team in NHL history — the 2012 and 2014 Los Angeles Kings — has won the Stanley Cup after losing 14 games at home during the regular season. So, the Leafs will battle more than a century of statistical odds when the playoffs begin in less than four weeks. Otherwise, it’s on to the next game. Right?
Many in Leafs Nation (and the local media) are wondering what has befallen No. 1 goalie Frederik Andersen, who couldn’t stop a feather against T–Bay and Chicago. The answer? Probably nothing. The Big Dane may simply be encountering boredom late in the season, with not very much to play for from a team perspective. Surely, he isn’t as weary as a year ago, when Babcock imprudently stretched him beyond the limit in the interest of regular–season points. Prolonged inactivity at mid–season this year — owing to a groin–strain; the NHL All–Star break and the Leafs’ mandatory five–day hiatus in the schedule — should help Andersen immeasurably. As will most of two nights off on Monday and Wednesday, after being yanked by Babcock in favor of back–up Garret Sparks. What we still don’t know about Andersen is whether he’s a legitimate playoff–caliber goalie. Like the team in front of him — and the coach that deploys him — he has nothing more to prove in the regular season. But, neither has he stolen much for the Maple Leafs in 13 Stanley Cup matches against Washington and Boston. We’re sure to learn more about Andersen this April.
AN AVID LEAFS FAN EMOTES DURING THE FINAL SECONDS AGAINST CHICAGO ON WEDNESDAY.
SPORTSNET TV IMAGES
Coaches and players generally refrain from the excuse of injury. But, the Leafs have been up against it the past couple of weeks without defensemen Travis Dermott and Jake Gardiner. Though mistake–prone, both are adept at moving the puck. And, the Leafs cannot prevail with Martin Marincin and Igor Ozhiganov consuming more than part–time minutes. As for those that are fretting over the club right now… a little history lesson (for whatever it’s worth): In the final month of the best season of Harold Ballard’s ownership tenure, I completely gave up on the Blue and White. That occurred between Mar. 18 and Apr. 9, 1978. Under rookie coach Roger Neilson, the 1977–78 Leafs bolted to a 19–6–3 mark in their first 28 games and were 39–19–10 after 68 matches. Then came the ol’ Brian Burke “18–wheeler”. The club finished with a 2–10–0 record and thoroughly destroyed — in my 19–year–old mind — any hope for a decent playoff showing.
When the curtain lifted, however, on the Cup tournament, the Leafs demolished Los Angeles 7–3 and 4–0 in a best–of–three preliminary round. Next up was a best–of–seven quarterfinal against the heavily–favored New York Islanders. After dropping the first two games in Uniondale, the underdogs rebounded to grab four of the next five matches… and the series, famously, on Lanny McDonald’s overtime goal at the Nassau Coliseum. For the first time since winning the 1967 NHL championship, the Leafs were in the Stanley Cup semifinals. And, though the dynastic Montreal Canadiens cleaned up in a four–game sweep, Neilson’s club proved that results late in the schedule with a playoff spot guaranteed may be vastly overrated.
So, hang in there, Leafs Nation. Nothing can truly be lost (or gained) until the third week of April.
Lost Tickets at Maple Leaf Gardens
Jan. 10, 1973: Leafs vs. New York Islanders
This happened more than 46 years ago, but I remember it like yesterday. The expansion New York Islanders made their first–ever visit to Maple Leaf Gardens at the midway point of the 1972–73 NHL schedule. It was one month prior to my 14th birthday. Dad brought home tickets for the game in the south–mezzanine Blues (top–right) and I made plans to go with my across–the–street neighbor, Ralph Wolfe. As we prepared to leave for the Gardens on that Wednesday night, I launched into one of the great conniptions of my childhood.
No matter where I looked, I couldn’t find the tickets. Face–off was set for 8 p.m. At 7:15, Ralph decided to drive down and plead our case to someone in the Special Ticket Office (up a winding staircase in the main lobby off Carlton Street). Thankfully, a man named Ed Renick took “rachmones” on us (that’s “mercy” in Yiddish) and issued a paper substitute (below) — with the stern warning that we’d be ushered from the building if someone showed up with the tickets. Given they were surely in my house, I figured we were okay. The Maple Leafs doubled the lowly Islanders, 4–2. Ralph drove us home after the game. As I took off my jacket and shook the right sleeve, the damned tickets fell onto the floor. After losing my mind searching every nook and cranny of the house, they were caught up, all night, in the webbing of my coat–sleeve.
It wasn’t my last “Mr. Magoo” moment, but it’s one that I remember most.
Among the original New York Islanders (roster, bottom–left), only two players — goalie Billy Smith and center Lorne Henning — would still be with the club on May 24, 1980 when it won the first of four consecutive Stanley Cups. General manager Bill Torrey built the Cup dynasty, starting in the 1973 NHL draft with defenseman Denis Potvin (No. 1 overall). Torrey later drafted Clark Gilles (No. 4 in 1974); Bryan Trottier (22nd in 1974) and Mike Bossy (15th in 1977). After Phil Goyette and Earl Ingarfield split the coaching chores in ’72–73, Torrey hired Al Arbour for the club’s second season. The rest, as they say, was history.