TORONTO (Nov. 9) — To begin: Credit Sheldon Keefe and the Maple Leafs for rebounding from a terrible opening two weeks of the 2021–22 season. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I didn’t see five consecutive wins coming after the all–too–familiar capitulations against San Jose and Pittsburgh, followed by a lopsided defeat at Carolina (Oct. 22–23–25). But, Toronto’s top players, forebodingly silent through that period, came alive and sparked a four–win homestand in five games, highlighted by victories over Stanley Cup–champion Tampa Bay and perennial nemesis Boston. The longest stretch of home games this season ended Monday night on Bay St. with a 5–1 setback against the resurgent Los Angeles Kings, which prompted the usual concern about this team.
But, the Maple Leafs deserve full marks for climbing out of the gorge they excavated in the early going.
Monday’s result, however, was such a normal occurrence for the Toronto team of the past half decade (half century?). How many times have the Leafs been unable, or unwilling, to perform energetically during a weeknight home game against an uncommon (and often inferior) opponent? We’ve come to expect this from the Auston Matthews–Mitch Marner–William Nylander group, which appears to derive excessive satisfaction from a couple of good results (against the Lightning and Bruins). It’s as if the follow–up game doesn’t count in the standings. Or, cannot possibly result in defeat, regardless of effort. The lesson is never learned. And, the pattern — most alarmingly — arises each spring in the first round of the playoffs, when the club loses its competitive edge. If the Leafs had competitive instinct, the pattern wouldn’t develop. But, this team relies disproportionately on skill. The intangibles that contribute to a deep Stanley Cup run rarely materialize. The loss to L.A. was merely the latest example.
You could blame the coach, but the Leafs have done that 20 times since 1967.
Good teams often turn to a natural leader — frequently their best player — to help curtail such an obvious tendency. We continue to wonder, though, if the face of the Toronto franchise, Matthews, possess anything beyond the capacity to score goals in the regular season? If so, it isn’t apparent. Most in the benign Toronto media would rather walk on a bed of nails than question, or criticize, the great No. 34. Who, evidently, has no impact on the hockey club beyond his weighty statistics between October and April. If Matthews cannot (or will not) bring it in the playoffs; if he cannot (or will not) prove discontented after one or two good efforts, thereby imbuing his teammates with incentive, why should the Leafs hang onto him beyond the 2023–24 schedule, when he can walk as an unrestricted free agent? Particularly at a salary and cap–hit of anything close to $11 million per season? To this point of his career, Matthews is all show. When the Maple Leafs understand they’ll need a kick–start — such as the “easy” games after a big win — he is rarely a factor. In my view, the club could improve itself… at two–thirds the cost.
The Maple Leafs have virtually no chance of winning when their core forwards coast through a game. The cheap supporting cast, which evolves every year, cannot overcome indifference from the big–money boys.
Of that, there is no doubt.
TUESDAY TIDINGS: Not explored by anyone that covers the Leafs in the mainstream media: Who authorized injury prone Petr Mrazek to return prematurely from the groin ailment suffered in Ottawa on Oct. 14? Clearly, it was a dreadful mistake that could have season–long consequences. Who gave Sheldon Keefe unprofessional, inaccurate information about the most–delicate and recurring malady for a goaltender? Surely someone must be answerable for Mrazek having to miss another four to six weeks… No creatures on Earth are more–closely aligned than fans of the Maple Leafs and Buffalo Bills. Both have suffered beyond reason and are inbred to anticipate disaster. That’s why even an MVP candidate, such as Bills quarterback Josh Allen, turns into an unaccomplished bum after one subpar performance. Granted, Allen and the Bills were abominable in their 9–6 upset loss at Jacksonville on Sunday. But, the University of Wyoming grad, who could have successfully lobbied for governor of New York State prior to the match, has absorbed an unwarranted sh**–kicking from callers on WGR–550 radio. As with Leaf supporters, there is no in–between with Bills zealots. The team and its players are either equal to God or deep in a swampy mine. At the moment, the AFC East leaders reside in the swamp… Speaking of Buffalo’s all–sports radio station, mid–morning host “Sneaky Joe” DiBiase does a good job. He’s usually well–informed; always opinionated and passionate. When embarking, however, on a rant, it’s best to have your facts in order. In the 10 a.m. hour today, DiBiase complained bitterly about the officiating in professional sport, citing an apparently conspiratorial flag thrown against the Chicago Bears in Sunday night’s nationally televised game at Pittsburgh. “It’s just like the NHL… when [referee] Wes McCauley was caught on microphone saying it was time to call a penalty against Nashville,” groused DiBiase. Um, Joe: McCauley is widely considered the best referee in the NHL. And, has been for several years. It was Tim Peel (also a good official) that snookered himself last winter and was immediately terminated by the league. Let’s not just throw around names while on the air… For those that care about the Toronto Argonauts — and many more apparently do than buy tickets at BMO Field — this is one of the most–confounding teams in franchise history. Given an error–prone rookie coach (Ryan Dinwiddie); a porous offensive line; an offensive coordinator (Jarious Jackson) that has limited imagination; dreadful kick coverage and a mediocre, journeyman quarterback (McLeod Bethel–Thompson) with a big arm and small ability to make plays, the Argos are somehow 8–4–0 and atop the East Division of the Canadian Football League. This franchise has furnished half the CFL with starting pivots that are superior to Bethel–Thompson. Toronto twice gave away Zach Collaros, quarterback of the 11–1 Winnipeg Blue Bombers; donated Cody Fajardo to the 8–4 Saskatchewan Roughriders; Trevor Harris to the rival Montreal Alouettes (via Edmonton and Ottawa) and the No. 1 man to start this season — Nick Arbuckle — to the Edmonton Elks. Which all but confirms that general manager Mike (Pinball) Clemons is not pulling the personnel strings. Pinball knows a stellar quarterback, having played and won Grey Cups with CFL legends Matt Dunigan and Doug Flutie. There’s no chance he would place an otherwise–promising team in the hands of Bethel–Thompson, who started numerous games in the back–to–back 4–14 disasters of 2018 and 2019. Argos president, Bill Manning, has rarely distinguished himself… in football or soccer. And, I’m told the club’s vice–president of player personnel, John Murphy, is hardly a beloved figure. If the Argos are to be exposed, I suspect it will happen on Friday night against Hamilton. Even though the club is undefeated at home this season, smoke–and–mirrors will not subdue the Tiger–Cats… The Leafs will host Calgary, Friday night, on the 90th anniversary of the first game at Maple Leaf Gardens: a 3–1 loss to Chicago, Nov. 12, 1931.
25 YEARS AGO in Philadelphia…
What a coincidence that the Leafs will be playing the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday. It will mark a quarter century since the first visit by Toronto to the arena that opened, in 1996–97, as the CoreStates Center. A game that is somewhat legendary for a raucous scrap at the final buzzer between goalies Ron Hextall and Felix Potvin. I have vivid memories of Nov. 10, 1996. It was my third season covering the Leafs as a reporter for The FAN–590, Canada’s first all–sports radio station. I took a morning flight to Philadelphia, that Sunday, and bought a scalper’s ticket for the National Football League game between the Eagles and Buffalo Bills at old Veterans Stadium. It was the tail–end of the Jim Kelly/Thurman Thomas era in which the Bills infamously appeared in four consecutive Super Bowls (1990–93), losing all. My first visit to the Vet since covering the 1993 World Series between the Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies ended in a 24–17 Bills triumph before 66,613 onlookers. The Eagles now play at Lincoln Financial Field in the same south–Philadelphia sports complex in which Veterans Stadium and the Spectrum once stood adjacently. The Vet was demolished on Mar. 21, 2004.
RUNNING BACK CHARLIE GARNER (30) OF THE PHILADELPHIA EAGLES PICKS HIS WAY THROUGH THE BUFFALO DEFENSE AT VETERANS STADIUM ON NOV. 10, 1996. RICK STEWART ALLSPORT
After a brief nap, I walked over to the new arena for the hockey game. The Flyers had played at the Spectrum since their inception in 1967–68. The CoreStates Center was typical of the arena boom in the past 25 years — with multi–level seating and rings of private luxury suites. The Leafs of the Doug Gilmour era sharply regressed after two brilliant seasons (1992–93 and 1993–94). Pat Burns had been fired as coach the previous March and replaced by Nick Beverley. Toronto snuck into the playoffs but got bounced in the opening round by Wayne Gretzky and the St. Louis Blues. Assistant coach Mike Murphy was elevated to the head position for 1996–97.
On this night, the Maple Leafs were .500 after 16 games (8–8–0). Pat Falloon and John LeClair had Philly in front, 2–0, before defenseman Mathieu Schneider scored a powerplay goal (from Larry Murphy and Gilmour) with 1:30 remaining in the second period. LeClair’s second of the night, on the powerplay at 15:44 of the third, sealed a 3–1 win. At the final buzzer, Wendel Clark of the Leafs and Daniel Lacroix began to fight. Potvin moved slowly toward the fray, which prompted Hextall to sprint the length of the ice. The goalies then engaged in a splendid slugfest as the sold out crowd roared with delight. Surprisingly, the Maple Leafs’ stopper gained the edge, pounding away on his often–bellicose rival. It was Potvin’s first NHL fight.
Referee Bill McCreary looked on as linesmen Greg Devorski and Bob Hodges separated the combatants. Hextall emerged with blood streaming down his face from a cut over the left eye. In the dressing room, afterward, he told reporters (smiling) “I’m too friggin’ old for this.” Here is a video of the wild goaltending scrap: https://bit.ly/3bT1Yh9.
50 YEARS AGO at Maple Leaf Gardens…
We trail backward another quarter century for a game at Maple Leaf Gardens between Toronto and Montreal on Nov. 10, 1971. I attended the match and still have the program (above… remember that delicious–looking Shopsy’s ad?). The Canadiens had won the Stanley Cup the previous spring with a long–legendary performance by upstart goalie Ken Dryden, who assumed the No. 1 role with six games remaining in the regular season… then stymied Boston, Minnesota and Chicago in the playoffs. Dryden had carried over his brilliance with a 1.97 goals–against average in 13 appearances; the Habs coming to Toronto with a 10–2–2 record (the Leafs were 4–6–2).
IT WAS THE FIRST SEASON OF THE MOSTLY CALAMITOUS HAROLD BALLARD OWNERSHIP ERA. AND, YES, THE LEAFS WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR A BUCK, INCLUDING THE PROGRAM OFFER, BELOW.
To no one’s great surprise, this game was lopsided (line–ups, above and below). Goals by Guy Lapointe, former Leaf Frank Mahovlich and Jacques Lemaire had the Canadiens in front, 3–0, by the midway mark of the match. Jim Harrison (from Jim McKenny) got the Leafs on the board at 10:40 of the second period, but Phil Roberto restored the visitors’ three–goal margin just 50 seconds later. Veteran Donnie Marshall scored his first of two goals as a Leaf early in the third (assists to Dave Keon and Rick Ley). Marshall had played on the Montreal team that won a record five consecutive Stanley Cups, beginning in 1956. Rejean Houle rounded out the scoring. Dryden made 35 saves as Montreal outshot the Leafs, 37–34. Bernie Parent took the loss for Toronto.
Art Skov officiated the match with linesmen Matt Pavelich and Willard Norris.