TORONTO (May 26) — The TV image spoke volumes. No raising his stick. No pumping of the arms. No gyrating of the body. Just a relaxed sip of water. It was there for fans across the country to see on Sportsnet at the final siren of last night’s Game 4 between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre.
Yes, Smilin’ Jack Campbell is in the zone.
What a difference in Stanley Cup competition when your goalie does not allow something cheap at a critical moment. That’s the boldest line that divides Frederik Andersen from Campbell, who performed superbly for the second consecutive night and recorded the first shoutout of his playoff career. The 4–0 Toronto triumph sets up the first elimination game of the series on Thursday night at Scotiabank Arena. There is no evidence the Leafs will require further competition to dispatch the inferior Canadiens. Toronto hasn’t won a playoff series since 2004. To put that 17–year drought in perspective, the longest previous gap in franchise history was eight years: 1951–59 and 1967–75. Not since a sweep of Ottawa in 2001 have the Leafs won four consecutive games in a playoff round, which they can accomplish on Thursday. The club hasn’t led 3–1 in a best–of–seven series since Round 2 of the 1987 Stanley Cup tournament against Detroit — after which the Red Wings roared back to prevail in seven. No such calamity will befall this club. The talent gap, in 2021, between Toronto and Montreal is far too immense. Only when the Leafs, while leading 3–0, relaxed somewhat in the third period, did the Habs dominate Game 4.
And, Campbell was cooler than a bowl of chilled Vichyssoise.
Andersen, too, had sustained moments of splendor during playoff clashes of the past four springs. Yet, there was unavoidably a mental lapse that hammer–locked his teammates — a dribbler from beside the net; a routine shot, unscreened, from a distance. And, almost always at a pivotal juncture in the game. It’s the reason why general manager Kyle Dubas has made no attempt to re–sign the Danish stopper beyond this season; the final year of Andersen’s contract. He’ll seek employment as an unrestricted free agent this summer… and the Leafs will enjoy one of the great bargains in the salary cap era when Campbell performs next season for a paltry $1.65 million.
It’s too early to place a “Doug Gilmour” tag on the deal that brought Campbell to the Maple Leafs from Los Angeles. But, it sure seems as if Dubas — on Feb. 6, 2020 — pulled off one of the best Leaf trades since the mammoth, 10–player swap that landed Gilmour from Calgary on Jan. 2, 1992. Why Kings GM Rob Blake unloaded Campbell (and veteran Kyle Clifford) for such a minuscule return (forward Trevor Moore and a pair of mid–round draft picks) remains quite a mystery. As indicated several times in this corner, Smilin’ Jack must have shown something to Blake when he recorded a marvelous 2.30 goals–against average in 31 starts of the 2018–19 schedule for the team with the second–fewest points (71) in the National Hockey League. Evidently, it wasn’t enough and Campbell found himself on the move two seasons later. The Kings are left with an aging Jonathan Quick, 35, and a still–promising 26–year–old in Notre Dame University grad Calvin Peterson. It appears, however, as if Blake shed the jewel of his netminding stock by giving up on Campbell: a combined 20–4–2 this season and playoffs.
SPORTSNET TV IMAGES
More evidence is needed before we elevate Campbell into the pantheon of modern–day Leaf goalies. The Canadiens weren’t expected to be a severe challenge; nor have they. Waiting on the sideline — engorged with confidence — is the much–stronger Winnipeg Jets, coming off an eye–popping sweep of the favored Edmonton Oilers in the opening round. After that? Well… who knows? Smilin’ Jack may need to stare down the Vegas Golden Knights or Colorado Avalanche in a best–of–seven conflict. Maybe even (gulp!) the Boston Bruins. Only then will we begin to recognize precisely what he’s made of. Right now, the Maple Leafs are surely content with the absence of soft, killer goals that derailed their Stanley Cup aspiration with Andersen between the pipes.
And, that’s a pretty good start.
CIVIC INVOLVEMENT: The mayors of Toronto and Montreal aren’t alone in making a friendly bet over which team wins this series. Even my employer got into the act. Yes, Benjamin’s wagered with Paperman & Sons — the Jewish funeral home in Montreal — over the result. At stake? A catered lunch. Get the utensils out.
From my collection — Part 7
In the span of one year and 22 days, in 1986 and 1987, the Maple Leafs lost two of the most–legendary figures in franchise history. Frank (King) Clancy and George (Punch) Imlach rode shotgun during the Stanley Cup dynasty of the 1960’s — Clancy endearingly known as “vice–president in charge of nothing;” Imlach the architect as general manager and coach. Clancy died at 83 years of age on Nov. 10, 1986. Imlach, still just 69, succumbed to a heart attack on Dec. 1, 1987. I’ve kept the Toronto Sun from the day after each passing:
NOV. 11, 1986
Canadian musician Gordon Lightfoot (top–left) graced the cover of the Nov. 11, 1986 Toronto Sun, beneath the top heading that announced King Clancy’s death. Clancy and Leafs owner Harold Ballard had grown inseparable in the prior decade, watching home games from Ballard’s “bunker” in the northeast corner of Maple Leaf Gardens and traveling together to road matches. Sun hockey writer Scott Morrison covered that angle of the story.
Sports editor George Gross penned a column.
DEC. 2, 1987
Punch Imlach took center stage on the cover of the Dec. 2, 1987 Toronto Sun, the day after his death. Columnist Steve Simmons wrote the lead story (below), while George Gross provided a personal reflection.