TORONTO (May 27) — If you consider local newspaper and website headlines since Monday, it appears the 2021 Toronto Maple Leafs have attained some kind of zenith by merely leading the worst of the 16 Stanley Cup playoff qualifiers in the opening round. Of course, having not won a post–season series in 17 years — more than twice the length of the previous franchise drought — the current club is profiting from an impossibly low standard. To wit:
THIS IS THE LEAFS TEAM BRENDAN SHANAHAN ENVISIONED.
TAG–TEAM PARTNERS DUBAS AND KEEFE LOOKING UNBEATABLE FOR LEAFS.
THESE LEAFS ARE DIFFERENT FROM PAST YEARS, AS THE NHL PLAYOFFS HAVE SHOWN SO FAR.
MAPLE LEAFS FIND LONG–ELUSIVE KILLER INSTINCT.
MAPLE LEAFS DRIVING AWAY GHOSTS OF SERIES PAST.
NYLANDER ASSERTS HIMSELF AS A LEADER FOR THE MAPLE LEAFS.
Again, all of this after three–quarters of a first round victory against a middling opponent the Leafs dominated in the regular season. Not while making it through the North Division playoffs… and threatening such a team as defending–champion Tampa Bay in the Stanley Cup semifinals. Which, though not incomprehensible, is still largely a dreamlike scenario. And, it begs the question: What is success for the Maple Leafs this spring? Surely it cannot be the National Hockey League championship. That expectation is reserved for teams that have ventured to within sniffing range of the silver mug in the past half–century. Which excludes the Blue and White. So, is advancing to the second round of Stanley Cup competition, while clearly a step forward, satisfactory enough for those in the mainstream media entrusted with viewing the club objectively? Is it winning the Division playoff title — thereby dispatching Winnipeg in the next series — and landing amid the four semifinalists? Or, as the media tone clearly indicates, have the Maple Leafs already prospered after three wins in the opening round? If it’s either of the first two suggestions, local reporters and columnists have gotten rather carried away with infant steps. Don’t you agree?
Again, never in the 104–year history of the franchise, which began in 1917 as the Toronto Arenas, have the Maple Leafs failed to win a playoff series in the span of 17 springs; 16 when you factor in the full NHL season lost to labor discord. A fan of the hockey club must be approaching 30 to vividly recall the seven–game triumph over Ottawa between Apr. 8 and Apr. 20, 2004. A teenaged Leafs zealot, therefore, has no concept whatsoever of playoff achievement. The same applied when I became a middle–teenager. Though I have faint memory, three months after my eighth birthday, of sitting at the foot of my parents’ bed and watching George Armstrong raise the 1967 Stanley Cup on a black–and–white TV, it wasn’t until I turned 16, in the spring of 1975, that the Leafs advanced beyond the opening playoff round. And, that’s only if you consider a best–of–three preliminary quarrel a true series victory; even if the Leafs upset the Los Angeles Kings, 27 points superior in the 1974–75 regular season. It wasn’t until April 1978, after I turned 19, that the club prevailed in a best–of–seven series: Lanny McDonald famously sending me and my friends into hysteria with an overtime goal in Game 7 against the New York Islanders.
So, I can identify with current Leaf fans in their mid–20’s enjoying an initial taste of playoff excitement. I identify less with experienced media wags going hog–wild and maniacal after three wins over a much–inferior opponent.
Even if this is the Millennium of Overkill.
Here’s a contrasting perspective: Seventeen years is the amount of time I covered the Maple Leafs, home and away, as a reporter for Canada’s first all–sports radio station, The FAN–590; a bit longer when you factor in the Stanley Cup run of the Pat Burns–Doug Gilmour team from 1992–93. During virtually the same interval as the current playoff famine (since 2004), I watched the Leafs win 11 rounds: four under Burns and seven under Pat Quinn.
SOME HEALING, PERHAPS? Tonight marks only the third time the Leafs have played as late as May 27. The two prior occasions occurred during the Stanley Cup semifinals; this year, of course, owing to the Jan. 13 start of the 56–game, pandemic–reduced schedule. Eliminating the Canadiens tonight would at least put a different spin on the date — best–remembered, by veteran Leaf watchers, for l’affair Gretzky–Gilmour–Fraser in 1993 at the Los Angeles Forum. If you are unaware, the Maple Leafs were in a position, that night, to knock off the Kings in Game 6 and advance to the Stanley Cup final against — yes — the Canadiens. Wendel Clark finished a hattrick by coming off the bench to take Doug Gilmour’s pass from the corner and beat Kelly Hrudey with a laser shot at 18:39 of the third period; the visitors erasing a 4–2 deficit. At 19:47, and rather forgotten by Leaf rooters that still blame referee Kerry Fraser for the loss, Toronto forward Glenn Anderson had a brain cramp, ramming defenseman Rob Blake into the end glass for a much–deserved boarding penalty, thereby enabling the Kings to start overtime with a man advantage. Early in the extra frame — and, still, to the chagrin of Leaf oldsters — Wayne Gretzky followed through on a shot by clipping Gilmour in the chin, cutting the Toronto player. As Gilmour dabbed at the blood, a shiver went through 16,005 fans at the Forum. Gretzky, by rule, should have been banished from further play.
Instead, Fraser overlooked the incident and allowed the Great One to continue.
Not surprisingly, it was No. 99 who lifted a rebound past Felix Potvin at 1:41 (his former Edmonton teammate, Anderson, still in the penalty box) and L.A. lived to fight another day. Gretzky then had what he called his “greatest” playoff hour, scoring three goals in a 5–4 elimination of Toronto, two nights later, at Maple Leaf Gardens.
THE LATE PETER ZEZEL (d. May 26, 2009) OF THE MAPLE LEAFS SKATES AWAY DEJECTEDLY AS WAYNE GRETZKY CELEBRATES HIS OVERTIME GOAL — 28 YEARS AGO TONIGHT — IN GAME 6 OF THE 1993 STANLEY CUP SEMIFINALS AT THE LOS ANGELES FORUM. CBC/HOCKEY NIGHT IN CANADA
The Leafs also played on May 27 in 1999… and also lost. On that occasion, it was Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final in Buffalo; the extended date owing to a two–week lull in the NHL schedule for the 1998 Nagano (Japan) Winter Olympics in February. The Leafs and Sabres had split the first two matches at Air Canada Centre; Toronto failing, in the opener, to prevail in the unexpected absence of future Hall–of–Fame goalie Dominik Hasek (back–up Dwayne Roloson won, 5–4). Game 3 began a precipitous slide for Pat Quinn’s first Leaf team. The club dropped three consecutive games (4–2, 5–2, 4–2) and got rudely bounced by the Sabres, who then lost to Dallas in the Cup final on Brett Hull’s infamous “toe–in–the–crease” triple–overtime tally. A victory over Montreal, tonight, would therefore be a first on May 27 for the Blue and White. It would also guarantee the Maple Leafs competing farther into a calendar year than ever before — May 31, in 1999 (Game 5 vs. the Sabres), being the latest.
CANADA CAME CLOSE… RAZOR CLOSE
Montreal’s Stanley Cup victory over Los Angeles in 1993 still represents the most–recent triumph by a team based in Canada. But, the Calgary Flames nearly won the NHL title 11 years later — in 2004 — losing a Game 7 heartbreaker to the Tampa Bay Lightning. I covered both the Flames’ semifinal defeat of the San Jose Sharks and the championship round for The FAN–590. Here are newspaper images from my collection:
WHAT A CELEBRATION IN CALGARY AFTER THE FLAMES KAYOED THE SHARKS IN SIX.
CALGARY, LEADING THE FINAL 3–2, HAD A CHANCE TO WIN THE CUP ON HOME ICE IN GAME 6. BUT, A DOUBLE–OVERTIME GOAL BY MARTIN ST. LOUIS SENT THE CLUBS BACK TO FLORIDA FOR A DECISIVE MATCH. AND, THE LIGHTNING — COACHED BY JOHN TORTORELLA; CAPTAINED BY FORMER LEAF DAVE ANDREYCHUK — SLIMLY PREVAILED, 2–1, FOR THE CLUB’S FIRST NHL TITLE.