Bowen Was Absolutely Crestfallen

TORONTO (May 15) — I watched the first two periods of Game 7 on Saturday night before getting dressed and going to work. As such, I listened on radio to the final eight minutes of the decisive match between the Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning. I figured the Leafs might deadlock the score with their goalie on the bench for an extra attacker, as they’ve done so frequently under coaches Mike Babcock and Sheldon Keefe. As it turned out, the home side barely threatened to force overtime. And, the end came — on radio — almost silently. After which Joe Bowen, the voice of the Leafs since 1982, simply announced “it’s over… it’s happened again.”

I’ve known Joe for more than 35 years and I’ve never heard him so utterly disconsolate. As always, he maintained professional decorum, but you could read his mind. Had Joe not been the ultimate pro, he would have told his audience, “I’m 71 and I’ve been doing this job for the past four decades. Will I ever — and I mean EVER — get to call a Stanley Cup game?” It’s a question that Bowen has frequently pondered during this longest famine in Leafs history: an epoch of 17 springs, dating to 2004, without winning a playoff round. In order for Joe to call his first Cup final match, the Leafs must not only break that interminable drought, but win two more best–of–seven series in the same playoff year. Which, right now, seems utterly impossible. Just as fans of the Maple Leafs, young and old, are asking similar questions after the defending–champion Lightning squeaked into the Atlantic Division final with a 2–1 triumph at Scotiabank Arena. Undeniably deja vu for Leafs Nation, but with a slightly different twist.

Not that it particularly matters, but this wasn’t the Maple Leafs of Frederik Andersen allowing killer, soft goals against Washington, Boston and Columbus… or the Leafs of 2021 gagging on a 3–1 series lead against Montreal, the most–inept (if suddenly hot) playoff opponent in the 17 springs of misery. Instead, it was the best regular–season club in franchise annals slugging it out, blow by blow, with a two–time Stanley Cup winner. And, coming up one lousy goal shy of sending the decisive match into overtime. How do you get angry, or become overly critical, of a team that loses so narrowly in a game that reflected the parity of the entire, seven–game exercise?

The quick answer is: you don’t.

There were no excuses in this series, a classic tussle between teams of equal caliber in which one prevailed by the slimmest margin. Yet, still, it’s “wait ’til next year” for the most loyal and resilient fans in professional sport.

The latest opening–round defeat proved once more that the regular schedule is a dance party before a gun fight. It’s the reason I have long tended, in this corner, to downplay individual and team accomplishments between October and April. From my perspective, the regular season is an arrangement of 82 exhibition games in which points are awarded. Enough points must be accumulated to make the playoffs, at which time the stakes immediately change. Auston Matthews, as an example, performed adequately for the Maple Leafs against Tampa Bay, but not with nearly the flash or finish of the 82–game precursor, when it’s much easier to put up numbers. You know he’d give back all of his 60 goals for one measly playoff dagger. Which never materialized. Same for Mitch Marner and his 97 points; for William Nylander and his career–best 34 goals. The most–entertaining and skilled team in franchise history could not take it to the next level. For the third time in four playoff years, the Leafs failed to close out a series after building a 3–2 lead in games. Neither, when it mattered, was there enough support from beneath the vaunted nucleus — as displayed by third–liner Nick Paul of the Lightning, who outshone Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos with money on the line, scoring both Tampa Bay goals in the Game 7 victory.

So, the Leafs need to change. Perhaps not drastically, but in a way that can somehow lift the team beyond the playoff quagmire. The mostly flat salary cap, by itself, will necessitate amendment to the roster for next season. But, there is still the requirement for strategic change, which is more difficult, because it involves tough assessment of your top players. We’ll get into that in the coming days and weeks. Of paramount importance, yet again, is the continuation of a 45–year quest: to land an all–timer on the blue line, not seen in these parts since Borje Salming. If you watched Tampa Bay in the past two weeks and did not conclude that Victor Hedman is the most–important player in the National Hockey League, you’re in denial. Until the Leafs, by some means, unearth a defender that can control the pace of a Stanley Cup game, the longest championship drought will not likely end.


21 comments on “Bowen Was Absolutely Crestfallen

  1. Sad / fell like Charlie Brown when Lucy removes the football every time he tries to kick the ball – team cursed – bad luck – but the bottom line is our top players have no heart no grit no desperation – paycheque boys.

  2. I note that many hockey media are commenting that the Leaf core 4 showed up in a significant way (finally) in the series so they should just run it all back. Yet when you look at the winners of the other Games 7 in Calgary, Edmonton, and New York, I can’t help but notice that their star players directly impacted the outcome with a timely goal. In the case of McDavid he simply won the game. In Toronto we’ve had Pat Gillick and Masai Ujuri look at excellent/successful teams and realize that there was a need for a significant change to truly move forward to be a REAL contender.
    Hopefully, (but I doubt it) Dubas or Shanahan has the same fortitude.

  3. After Toronto crapped the bed in Game 6, I felt game 7 would go Tampa Bay’s way. I acknowledge that it’s great for hockey, great for Tampa Bay, but as a Leafs fan the loss is akin to getting kicked in the groin. IMO Toronto was the better team, but Tampa bay has the better system, the better coach, and the better defense. Keefe is a decent coach, but given he was unable to close out two winnable series it’s time to move on. I appreciate that Shanahan tanked, and built from the draft. I also appreciate the draft picks and players that Dubas has added. I’d give both those guys more rope and another year. I suspect we’ll find out quickly if it’s going to be Trotz or Torts. I’d go bonkers playing for either coach but they both have a talent for winning.

  4. Games 4 and 6: Leafs lacked the killer instinct.

    Leafs underdogs vs Capitals….Leafs lose
    Leafs underdogs vs Bruins……. Leafs lose
    Leafs 50/50 vs Bruins….. Leafs lose
    Babcock fired
    Leafs favored vs Columbus…Leafs lose
    Leafs heavily favored vs Habs…..Leafs lose (choked)
    Leafs 50/50 vs Tampa…Leafs lose

    Maybe it’s not the coach’s fault and it’s more on the GM? And, yeah, Hedman was amazing. Even better than Weber last year.

  5. I’m reading all these negative comments and fire Dubas and Keefe, when this was the most successful regular season in franchise history and we went toe to toe with the two-time defending champs. The 0-for-10 on clinching games is obviously horrible, but the Leafs have been ousted by last years finalists two years in a row. Instead of blaming the team, look at who they bowed out too. Fire Dubas? He made the trade for Lyubushkin and Giordano and Blackwell at the deadline. All three played big minutes during the series. Leaf fans fancy themselves hockey aficionados but always have the need to point the finger at someone to blame.

    1. Not sure. But, perhaps ask Tampa (Hedman), Florida (Ekblad), the Rangers (Fox), Carolina (Slavin), Colorado (Makar) or St. Louis (Pietrangelo). All are still alive in the playoffs. Leafs have a reasonable facsimile in Rielly. But, still a notch below the best.

  6. It might be time for Larry Tanenbaum to clean house by firing Kyle Dubas, Brendan Shanahan, Brandon Pridham, and Laurence Gilman.

    This Hockey Club is closer to a rebuild that would take 5 Years than a Stanley Cup.

    The Maple Leafs had no chance in this year’s Playoffs unless they played Washington.

    They’re a 1 Line Team with no Goaltending and a Miserable Defence Core.

    Their Number 1 Defenceman Morgan Rielly would be a Bottom Pair Defenceman on the New York Rangers, Colorado Avalanche, Boston Bruins, and many other teams in the NHL.

    The Maple Leafs Lineup on Opening Night of the 2022-23 Season against the Montreal Canadiens or Ottawa Senators will be far worse than the lineup that was on the ice for Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal.

    The Maple Leafs will struggle to make the Playoffs next year with the likes of the Lightning, Panthers, and Bruins still being good in the Atlantic with the possibility of the Red Wings improving big time assuming that they hire Barry Trotz.

    If the Maple Leafs somehow make the Playoffs in 2023 but fail to get past the Opening Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a tough Eastern Conference that might be dominated by the New York Rangers, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner will be sent packing.

    The Curse of Frank Mahovlich that began on March 3rd, 1968 has a lot of battery life to it and I don’t see it ending anytime soon.

    In 2-3 Years from now, the Toronto Maple Leafs will be at or near the basement in the National Hockey League Standings once again.

  7. I have to admit, I was gobsmacked by their loss. For the first time since 2004, I had convinced myself they were going to advance to round two but it didn’t happen. It could only mean one thing:
    The curse of Harold Ballard reigns on.

  8. Howard,

    You have pointed out a number of times that the Leafs can’t achieve a meaningful/strategic change while their “core 4” upfront remains intact. The same Core 4 mind you (5 if you want to add Reilly into the mix) that has now witnessed a statistically nearly impossible 0-9 record in series clinching games.

    And yes, Dubas has done a decent job in trying to provide the supporting cast which have resulted in splendid REGULAR seasons.

    So, the question then becomes, at what point it would be fair to point out that the Dubas/Shanahan’s refusal to trade any of the Core 4 (or realistically either of Marner/Nylander) to improve his team, should cost him his job? How many more first exits would it take? 1 more? 5 more? 10 more??? That is slippery slope being played by Toronto media right now: let’s give THIS year’s a team a pass because they “fought hard” and they were “inches” away from advancing (never mind that they led the series 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2). As though, it is already guaranteed that they will win their first round NEXT year! Just like Mr. Shanahan, almost exactly a year ago today, boldly proclaimed that “we will get it done”.

  9. Howard, you are being too easy on this team and Leaf management. Gord Stellick said it best when he said that now it is the Panthers that have surpassed the Leafs. The Leafs were supposed to be the up and coming team in the division, except that they aren’t. The team was not consistent enough in this series, and they weren’t disciplined enough. Too many bad penalties and slow starts. How do you allow your opponent to score the first two goals in game 5 & 6? Tampa scored first last night. I do not expect any changes in management this year, but this team will change over the next few years. I don’t see Campbell re-signing (I don’t think can afford him in any event), and I don’t see Matthews coming back in 2 years. It should be noted three players who weren’t good enough to play here and moving on with Edmonton. McDavid also delivered, far more than Matthews, Marner, Nylander or Tavares.

  10. The common phrase, ” The Leafs won’t ever win anything until….” Correct this statement by removing the word “Until”. They simply will never win…period.
    In Canada’s biggest city this organization, media and fans have shown they simply don’t understand the “culture” of winning hockey. Florida does, Tampa Bay does, Pittsburgh does…even LA does but Toronto just doesn’t get and likely never will.

  11. Valuing skill over character doesn’t work for playoff hockey. The Toronto media like to remind everyone all day and night throughout the season, how many goals and points Matthews and Marner have. Who cares? It’s about showing up in the playoffs. The team is in a mess with the existing contracts. How are they going to pay Campbell? They can’t let him go. Improving the team is going to be difficult when you’re stuck with the Tavares contract. Oh well, they’ll be a significant rise in ticket prices, they’ll stick with the same group, and delirious fans will always put up with it. In other words, nothing will change.

  12. The Leafs need to fire Dubas and Keefe and if Shanahan refuses to do so, he should go too. My hope is these changes will happen. There was a strange feeling and look to Dubas and Shanahan when the camera caught them.

    Winning isn’t the main thing, it’s the only thing. – Vince Lombardi

  13. I think that the significant statistic is NOT that they lost ANOTHER 7th game in an opening round playoff series but that they didn’t win it in 6, when they had the opportunity. We had a lead in the 3rd period of game 6. Not the first time for that either. I’m sure that the brass at MLSE was counting on at least another 3 home games, this year, to make up for the “crowd control” of another Covid season. I wonder if they’ll quickly, blow up the team after yet another crushing loss? It’s a shame and a travesty that we had to play the champs in round one but this team demonstrated that they could beat anyone over the regular season. But despite a record winning season, examine some of the games; the one goal games, they lost and you’ll see that they still, too often, behave like rookies when discipline is required. With guys like Spezza and Tavares, you’d think that such veteran influence would have had more impact in situations where poise and maturity are required. I don’t know what the missing piece is, unless it’s a simple matter of heart. You know, Borje Salming heart, Gary Roberts heart or Doug Gilmore heart. Where do you get that and how do you know when you’ve found it? To coin a phrase, “Maybe next year.”

  14. It’s inevitable that the team will take a step backwards by virtue of their (self-imposed) cap hell. They simply can’t afford to “run back” the same roster again, but sadly and frustratingly the most stubborn GM in the league will again offer this as his solution in the next couple days. Because you know, “he believes in these guys”.
    You can pay Morgan Reilly like a #1 defenceman, but that doesn’t make him one. Significant players like Brodie, Muzzin and Tavares are in decline and the top four just isn’t enough (good or otherwise) on their own to get it done.
    Over the years Tampa adjusted by trading significant pieces or letting them walk as FA’s, and then replacing them with other important pieces. Their GM hasn’t been blinded/paralyzed by the sparkly, shinny, skilled baubles he drafted. He was smart enough to parlay some of those to build around a carefully selected important core.
    Until Dubas does that, and there’s ZERO evidence that he is willing to, the first round failure streak will continue leaving the “goal” of a stanley cup meaningless and almost comical.

  15. Fans analyzing the series make the mistake of focus on the 7th game. The root cause of the problem was the excessive number of penalties taken earlier in the series, Simmonds was a leading culprit. I believe that the Leafs are leading the playoffs in penalties…a team is unlikely to win a series against the incumbent Stanley Cup holders when give them so many opportunities

  16. Howard|: Don’t go soft on us now. You were right every blog for a year when you made the point that playoff success, however limited, is the ONLY factor that matters. A complete change in philosophy is required after 55+ dry years and 18+ years of playoff emptiness. Change descends from the very top. All must go immediately, from Shanahan on down. Otherwise, cue the same response as last year . . . and the year before . .. and the year before, etc

  17. This drought will not end. Not in my lifetime, your lifetime, Howard, or in the lifetime of a single soul populating Maple Leaf Square for these games. The toxic, entangled nature that exists in Leaf nation is just too difficult for a young roster to develop in. It’s why only veteran teams have accomplished anything since ’67.

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