TORONTO (Feb. 14) — It’s been an unusual sporting week here in town. The Toronto Raptors lost a basketball game. The Canadian Football League Argonauts found a quarterback. And, Toronto Blue Jays catcher Reese McGuire was allegedly spotted “exercising” his throwing hand in public. On the hockey side… well, there wasn’t much to celebrate. The Maple Leafs scratched out unremarkable overtime victories at home over Anaheim and Arizona; lost in extra time at Montreal and were shown, by Dallas, how defensive acumen can protect a third–period lead; the Stars prevailing, 3–2, at Scotiabank Arena on Thursday night.
Earlier in the week, my friend, Dave Feschuk, wrote a column in the Toronto Star entitled LEAFS ARE FACING TORONTO’S SCARIEST PLAYOFF INEVITABILITY SINCE THE RAPTORS’ ANNUAL DOSE OF LeBRONTO. The premise of the article was Dave’s contention that the Maple Leafs — having to likely eliminate Boston and Tampa Bay for a berth in the Stanley Cup semifinals — are doomed… as were the Raptors when LeBron James resided in the NBA’s Eastern Conference with Cleveland. For those unaware, LeBron and the Cavaliers bounced the Raptors from three consecutive playoff quarrels: the Conference final in 2016, then the semifinal in 2017 and 2018. The first and third were rather ghastly — Cleveland eliminating Toronto by scores of 113–87 (Air Canada Centre) and 128–93 (Quicken Loans Arena). The Leafs have similarly been embarrassed by Boston in Games 7 of the past two Stanley Cup years, getting hammered 7–4 and 5–1.
DALLAS GOALIE BEN BISHOP KEPT HIS EYE ON THE PUCK THURSDAY NIGHT AT SCOTIABANK ARENA, AS THE STARS EDGED THE MAPLE LEAFS, 3–2, IN REGULATION TIME. TORONTO STAR PHOTO
Dave’s point that our hockey club will encounter grievous odds should it qualify for the post–season is unassailable. So, too, is his contention that the National Hockey League’s playoff format robs the tournament of elite teams after the first two rounds — citing that only one of the Bruins and Lightning can advance beyond the Atlantic Division; one of Washington and Pittsburgh beyond the Metropolitan (we can add that either St. Louis or Colorado will not survive the Central). In my view, however, Dave’s accent may have been on the wrong syllable. Pertaining to the Maple Leafs, is it the NHL’s fault that Boston and Tampa Bay are virtually out of sight, once again, in Year 7 of the so–called Shanaplan? After Thursday night, Toronto is a distant third in the Atlantic with 68 points, 14 behind the Bruins and 13 fewer than the Lightning. As I mentioned, rhetorically, in a recent blog, is it written somewhere that the Leafs must settle for third in the division and must never challenge either of Boston or T–Bay? Or, is it a rather enormous failure, since 2013, of the hockey wing at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment to assemble a properly–balanced team?
I think the answer is obvious. We can cry all we want here in the Big Smoke about having to take down the mighty Bruins and Lightning… or, we can acknowledge that Boston and Tampa Bay have much more to wail about than the middling Leafs. I’d suggest that trailing the first and second–place clubs in the Atlantic by double–digits in mid–February, 2020, was hardly the expectation of Brendan Shanahan and his lieutenants. While Boston and Tampa Bay continue to soar, the one–dimensional Leafs are — at best — stuck in neutral, and possibly sliding backward. Neither of which is remotely related to the NHL’s contentious playoff format.
Dave Feschuk may be the lone sports journalist in the city that refuses to allow the Maple Leafs free passage. He is fully alert to the foibles of the hockey club and the publicity machine (largely generated by his cohorts in the media) that enables the fan–base to garner false hope. In his well–written column this week, however, Dave stopped short of assigning the appropriate blame. Which was unusual.
We’ll assume that Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas was somewhat mortified when realizing, at last, his team could not move forward with a complete lack of belligerence. After all, it is Kyle who evidently believes the Stanley Cup can be won in the absence of size, tenacity and defensive posture. If and when that happens, I’ll be the first to congratulate him. In the meantime, we can barely imagine the thought–process of the young GM when Kyle Clifford, acquired last week from Los Angeles, picked a fight with Jamie Oleksiak of Dallas, moments after the Stars had eased to a 2–0 lead over the moribund Leafs. The Scotiabank Arena audience, tranquil at the best of times, suddenly came alive, thereby awakening the home team. Which led to Auston Matthews quickly scoring for Toronto with a laser–shot over Ben Bishop’s shoulder (top–left).
It proved that a strategic scrap, rather than the goon sideshows that have thankfully been eliminated, can still play an enormous role in the course of a hockey game. The Maple Leafs need more grit. But, Clifford set the tone for a large portion of Thursday night’s match.
GRETZKY vs. GILMOUR IN ’93
I have finally — and much belatedly — gotten around to reading this exceptional account of the 1993 Stanley Cup semifinal between the Maple Leafs and Los Angeles Kings — by Damien Cox. We both had the privilege of covering that seven–game clash: Damien for the Toronto Star; me for The FAN–590. I have mentioned on several occasions, in this corner and elsewhere, that Game 6 of the series (May 27, 1993 at the Los Angeles Forum) — featuring the long–legendary Wayne Gretzky—Doug Gilmour—Kerry Fraser episode in overtime — is the most–memorable encounter of my 17 seasons following the Leafs, home and away. It marked the only time since 1967 that the Leafs were one shot removed from playing for the Stanley Cup. Instead, it was the Great One that scored the extra–time winner (on Felix Potvin), allowing L.A. to avoid elimination and win the series back at Maple Leaf Gardens two nights later. In Chapter 2 of the book, Damien brilliantly summarizes the fundamental difference between Gretzky and Gilmour during that two–week marathon:
The Kings… were willing to abuse and antagonize Gilmour in a way the Maple Leafs were unwilling to abuse and antagonize Gretzky. It was apparently acceptable for any player on the Kings to take a shot at Killer, but no Leafs player seemed to think it was acceptable to do the same to “The Great One.” [Marty] McSorley hadn’t hesitated to deliver a nasty head–shot [to Gilmour] in Game 1, but Gretzky was unlikely to receive anything similar. [He] simply existed in a different category. It was out of deference. Nobody had told [the Maple Leafs] to behave that way. It was just understood. Gilmour and Gretzky were the stars of each team, but one had a little more freedom to operate than the other.
Find this book and read it. Whether or not you recall that remarkable playoff spring, nearly 27 years ago.