TORONTO (June 7) — Earlier in the week, I posted this opinion on Twitter: “We are again seeing why the Leafs, as currently made up, aren’t suited for the Stanley Cup final. They cannot remotely match the level of physical play.” Though the vast majority of respondents concurred, others countered with: “I think you’re selling the Leafs short, Howard. Don’t forget, they took Boston to Game 7 in the opening round.”
And, therein lies — for logical reasons — the mentality of Leafs Nation. Amid young people, in particular.
Let’s remember, it was way back in 2004 that the Maple Leafs last emerged from the initial round of Stanley Cup toil, eliminating Ottawa in seven before losing in six to Philadelphia. Which means a fan of the hockey club must be 22 or 23 years old to have any first–hand recollection. That’s nearly an entire generation. In the interim, the Leafs have made the playoffs only four times (2013–17–18–19) and have bowed in the first round on each occasion — against Boston in every year except 2017, when Washington prevailed. So, yeah, especially for a youthful Leaf supporter, it’s all about somehow escaping the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Last accomplished roughly 2½ years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and four years before Barack Obama succeeded George W. Bush in the White House. In the year Shrek 2 topped all movies, worldwide, at the box office, grossing nearly $1 billion. And, five Toronto coaches (Pat Quinn, Paul Maurice, Ron Wilson, Randy Carlyle, Peter Horachek) before Mike Babcock. In other words, a lonnnnnnng time ago.
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT: FOR THE THIRD TIME IN THE PLAYOFFS SINCE 2013, ZDENO CHARA (33) AND THE BOSTON BRUINS WISH THE MAPLE LEAFS A HAPPY SUMMER. FRED KHOURY III GETTY IMAGES
What becomes, therefore, so easily lost is that even when the Leafs do advance beyond the opening round, their work will be only 25 percent complete. Three more opponents will need to be vanquished before the club can end its now–52–year Stanley Cup drought. And, that’s what prompted my Twitter post. Given the Raptors’ involvement in the National Basketball Association Finals, sports fans in Toronto (and across Canada) may not be paying close attention to the Stanley Cup final. It requires, however, only a cursory look to recognize that the Bruins and St. Louis Blues are hammering one another mercilessly. As befits the fourth round of the playoffs, it is absolute warfare. And, though the Leafs are likely equal (or superior) to Boston and St. Louis with respect to skill up front, in no way could the current Toronto team survive the physical element of the playoffs through ten weeks and four grueling rounds. The club simply isn’t built that way.
General manager Kyle Dubas claimed prior to this season that his team could make it through the Stanley Cup tournament with smallish, talented and speedy forwards. I respectfully disagree. Perhaps the current Leafs could out–skill an opponent into the second round, but not much further. As the playoffs progress — and as we observe almost every year — games become a battle of attrition. Once in awhile, a couple of lightweight teams do get to the final, such as Pittsburgh and San Jose in 2016. But, not as a rule. The Leafs sorely require at least three players — two up front and one on defense — that can establish tone in the first round of the playoffs… and well beyond. Otherwise, it will be rinse–and–repeat for the Blue and White.
FROM WORST TO FIRST?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If the St. Louis Blues win their first National Hockey League title, it will cap one of the most–remarkable narratives in Stanley Cup history — a team that was dead–last in the NHL on Jan. 2 somehow rebounding to stand alone in the second week of June. The Blues, formed in 1967, are one victory shy of that accomplishment after edging the Boston Bruins, 2–1, in Game 5 at the TD Garden. They can raise the silver mug before their home fans at the Enterprise Center on Sunday night in Game 6.
Should the Blues win the Stanley Cup — and the Raptors go on to defeat Golden State — there will be a pair of first–time champions in the spring. This has occurred in only four prior years:
2006 — Carolina Hurricanes/Miami Heat
1999 — Dallas Stars/San Antonio Spurs
1991 — Pittsburgh Penguins/Chicago Bulls
1989 — Calgary Flames/Detroit Pistons
Should the Bruins come back — as they did against the Leafs — and capture Games 6 and 7, the city of Boston will have won three of the four major sports championships in North America, following the New England Patriots and Boston Red Sox. Only the Celtics (tied with the Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers for most NBA titles: 16) will have finished out of the winner’s circle.
YES, IT’S TRUE: RYAN O’REILLY, DAVID PERRON AND THE ST. LOUIS BLUES ARE ONE VICTORY SHY OF WINNING THE FIRST STANLEY CUP IN FRANCHISE HISTORY AFTER PERRON’S DECISIVE GOAL IN GAME 5 OF THE 2019 FINAL THURSDAY NIGHT AT THE TD GARDEN IN BOSTON. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Given the Blues’ plight midway through the schedule, this would be an unprecedented achievement for general manager Doug Armstrong and head coach Craig Berube, who replaced Mike Yeo on Nov. 19. Berube oversaw the club’s revival in the second half of the season, featuring a rookie goaltender — Jordan Binnington — who played a starring role in the Game 5 victory at Boston. Toronto hockey fans may not know (or remember) that Berube appeared in 40 games with the Leafs in 1991–92 after being obtained from Edmonton (Sep. 19, 1991 — details below) in Cliff Fletcher’s first big trade as GM of the Blue and White. Fletcher then traded Berube to Calgary (Jan. 2, 1992) as part of his second big deal, acquiring Doug Gilmour from the Flames in what is still, in volume of players (10), the largest swap in NHL history. Berube contributed five goals, seven assists and 112 penalty minutes to the ’91–92 Toronto club, coached by Tom Watt, that missed the playoffs with a record of 30–43–7 for 67 points in the NHL’s 75th anniversary season.
CRAIG BERUBE’S BIO IN THE LEAFS MEDIA GUIDE OF 1991–92, HIS LONE SEASON WITH THE CLUB.
Also, agree with your points Howard. Toronto is built to be one of the greatest REGULAR season teams ever assembled. However, as you have noted, the playoffs are a different beast. We are also seeing goal-tending is unbelievable, and you have 2 groups of players who would literally gnaw through brick to get the “W”. Every time I see Brad Marchand in the playoffs I have flashbacks of Jiri Tlusty.
I am also likeminded that Toronto needs 2-3 players to compete in the post-season. A forward similar to Shanahan up front. A solid puck-moving right-shooting-defenseman with anger-management issues, and a solid goal-tender. I noticed in the playoffs that Babcock made the adjustment of having his savvy forwards carry the puck up the ice from the defensive zone to the offensive zone (with the exception of Rielly). Aside from Jo-Jo Savard I don’t think anyone else knows why he does what he does. Personally, I’m guessing that Babs was exasperated by not having a rear-guard that could hold onto the puck and then make the pass to one of the forwards.
I agree with your point, as I watch the very physical SCF unfold, thundering checks and grimace after grimace on both sides. DeBrusk and O’Reilly, from each team, are great examples of size and skill, apparently an equivalent player missing from the Leafs roster. It is interesting however, that the Leafs actually outhit the Bruins in the first round series. That suggests to me (faint hope?) that the young Leafs are at least willing to up their physical game in the playoffs? Still, a bruising defensemen and a scary forward (but fast, not Lucic-ish) would definitely up the grind factor on the Leafs squad.