TORONTO (June 12) — One can barely imagine the frenzy and euphoria in these parts if the Maple Leafs, not the Montreal Canadiens, were about to tangle with the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup semifinals. And, the sheepish resignation once the Knights rolled to a four or five–game destruction. Yes, by collapsing as they did against the Habs in the opening round, the Leafs avoided annihilation. A Vegas–Toronto match–up would have exposed the locals like never before.* The carefree, “everything is fine” proclamation by Brendan Shanahan after the Montreal embarrassment — awkward and perplexing at the time — would have been scoffed at, league wide, after a dismantling by the Golden Knights. Far better to sit back and watch the Canadiens endure such an indignity.
* Some readers are reminding me the Leafs, had they advanced to the final four, would have faced Tampa Bay, not Vegas. Thanks for the bulletin. The point of this blog is hypothetically subbing Toronto for Montreal in a match-up with the Golden Knights.
Montreal is legitimately a “massive underdog” in this penultimate series. Had the Canadiens begun to encounter Vegas two nights after rolling over Winnipeg, perhaps they’d stand a chance to confront the Nevada behemoth. But, a one-week respite will prove crippling for a team that caught lightning in a bottle. The inexplicable momentum that allowed the Habs to rebound from the dead against Toronto; then bushwhack the Jets, is gone. It cannot be sustained over seven nights of inactivity. All–time evidence lays with “Canada’s team” from 2007. In the last Stanley Cup series between a challenger from the Great North and an opponent from the Pacific time zone in America. The Ottawa Senators, 14 springs ago, motored past Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Buffalo in 15 matches, or three above the minimum required to qualify for the championship round. It was men against boys in the Eastern playdowns. Then came a nine–day lag while the Anaheim Ducks eliminated Detroit in the Western series.
By the time Ray Emery, Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Co. arrived in southern California for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final, Ottawa’s clout was a distant memory. Perhaps Anaheim, with the incomparable defense pairing of Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer, would have won the National Hockey League title under any circumstance. But, the Ducks were assisted, immeasurably, by the Senators languishing for nearly 1½ weeks after destroying their Eastern rivals. Anaheim (coached by Randy Carlyle) rolled to its first Stanley Cup triumph, without push–back, in five easy games. A similar fate will almost–surely befall the Canadiens against the Golden Knights.
To consider the Maple Leafs winning even one game against Vegas, given how the Knights impressively subdued Colorado, requires vivid imagination. All of the key playoff elements — overall size and aggression; balance among forwards; a franchise defenseman (Alex Pietrangelo); a goalie (Marc–Andre Fleury) with a Stanley Cup resume; a shrewd, experienced general manager (George McPhee, now president of hockey operations, built the club before passing the GM torch to Kelly McCrimmon) — are missing from the Blue and White. Even if Shanahan insists his current team “will get it done” in the post season. Vegas, from its first game in the NHL (a 2–1 triumph over Dallas at T–Mobile Arena on Oct. 6, 2017), was superior to the 100–year–old Leafs. And the gap, if anything, has widened, particularly as it concerns playoff virtue. The Golden Knights, properly constructed from the goal outward, are in a different realm than the Leafs: improperly fashioned in reverse, with slick forwards.
A STANLEY CUP SEMIFINAL CLASH BETWEEN VEGAS AND TORONTO WOULD PROVE TERRIBLY UNFLATTERING TO THE LEAFS. AS IT LIKELY WILL THE CANADIENS. LAS VEGAS REVIEW–JOURNAL PHOTOS
Forever, in this space, I have expounded on the mandatory requirement of a Norris Trophy candidate. Less than a handful of teams, in the post–expansion era (beginning in 1967–68), have won the Stanley Cup without such a component. Nearly all have featured at least one–such figure — from Bobby Orr in Boston… to the Big 3 (Serge Savard, Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe) in Montreal… to Dennis Potvin of the Islanders’ dynasty… Paul Coffey of the Oilers’ great run… Coffey and Larry Murphy in Pittsburgh… Niedermayer and Scott Stevens in New Jersey… Nicklas Lidstrom in Detroit… Sergei Zubov in Dallas… Duncan Keith in Chicago… Drew Doughty in Los Angeles… it is, beyond question, a prerequisite to winning the NHL title. And, it’s the reason (among several) that I believe Tampa Bay (with Victor Hedman) and Vegas (with Pietrangelo) will hook up in the Stanley Cup final this year.
The Leafs, rather remarkably, haven’t iced a Norris Trophy type in more than four decades. And, when Boirje Salming was in his prime (1976–80), no club in the lop–sided NHL had a chance to defeat Scotty Bowman’s dynasty in Montreal. In 1976–77, as part of a compact, 18–team league, there was a 91–point gap between the best club (the Habs, 132) and the worst (Detroit, 41). In a typical NHL season today — let’s use the 31–team standings of 2017–18 as an example — there existed a 55–point gap between Nashville (117) and Buffalo (62). This season, in the pandemic–shortened, 56–game slate, 45 points separated Colorado (82) from Buffalo (37). The salary cap era has precluded the nearly triple–figure discrepancy between best and worst of the 1970’s. More than ever, a Stanley Cup outfit needs an elite blue–liner and an experienced, front–line goalie (Andrei Vasilevskiy).
Precisely how Brendan Shanahan expects the Maple Leafs — with Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin on the blue line… and a promising goalie (Jack Campbell) that has never won a playoff round — to conquer all other teams is a mystery. Yet, that was the promise made by the president after his team folded up against the Canadiens.
I again implore you to closely watch Vegas and Tampa Bay, in particular, as the 2021 Stanley Cup tournament winds to a close. And, objectively imagine the Maple Leafs in a seven–game showdown against either club.
If, as a fan of the Blue and White, it doesn’t make you shudder, you aren’t paying attention.