TORONTO (May 13) — For those who contend that curses, ghosts, goblins and bad guys wearing striped jerseys account for the nearly two decades since the Toronto Maple Leafs last won a playoff round, allow me to get this maudlin reminder out of the way: Tonight marks the ninth anniversary of the Causeway Street Calamity, when Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf and Co., on May 13, 2013, spit up that 4–1 lead in the third period of Game 7 at Boston.
Truth be known, the Leafs have richly earned almost all of the franchise catastrophes in the post–1967 era. Not to suggest that Game 7 of this Tampa Bay series will fall into that category… and there have been numerous triumphs along the way, even if devoid of the ultimate accomplishment: winning the Stanley Cup. Coming off the best regular season in the club’s history, it is my opinion that the current Leafs have performed exceptionally well in this test against the two–time champions; that changes to the front office and coaching staff are unnecessary.
The sentiment may differ slightly if the Leafs get their doors blown off on Saturday night, but few are anticipating such a result. General manager Kyle Dubas withstood abundant criticism after his club folded against Montreal last spring; a front–cover photo of Dubas in the Toronto Sun stood beneath the heading BOY BLUNDER. This corner, at the same time, suggested the Maple Leafs should hire Jim Rutherford to replace Dubas, long before Rutherford took over from Jim Benning as GM of the Vancouver Canucks. The Sun headline and my suggestion were premature. Dubas smartly reconfigured the Maple Leafs beneath the core of Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, Morgan Rielly and Jack Campbell. The additions of Michael Bunting, Ondrej Case and David Kampf offset mistakes with Nick Ritchie and Petr Mrazek. The trade with Los Angeles (in February 2020) for Campbell ranks among the best moves by a Toronto GM since Cliff Fletcher pilfered Doug Gilmour from Calgary in January 1992. Ilya Mikheyev has taken a giant step. Mark Giordano and Ilya Lyubushkin were solid pick–ups on defense. Nearly four years after assuming the big chair from Lou Lamoriello, Dubas has become a shrewd manipulator of talent, justifying the confidence shown in him by president Brendan Shanahan.
Nothing about that changes if the Maple Leafs lose Game 7 to the Lightning.
There are, however, some facts to consider, even if largely irrelevant to the Toronto–Tampa Bay clash. Foremost among them is that the Leafs have never played a seven–game series in which one team did not win consecutive matches. Which would seem to mitigate against Toronto finishing the win–one, lose–one pattern of this round with a victory in Game 7. If nothing else, the law of averages is solidly in the corner of Tampa Bay capturing a second successive game. Of course, Leaf supporters would argue that the same law rests with their team after failing to advance beyond the opening round since 2004. Perhaps sound logic when considering that the 18 years prior to ’04 — or dating to 1986 — saw the Maple Leafs prevail in 13 playoff rounds, while reaching the Stanley Cup semifinals in 1993, 1994 and 2002. Nothing close to this drought has been experienced by the Blue and White.
Some other notable tidbits…
* The Maple Leafs haven’t knocked off the defending Stanley Cup champion in the expansion era… or since upsetting Montreal to win their most–recent title, in 1967. As with Tampa Bay, the Habs were the two–time champs, having defeated Chicago in 1965 and Detroit in 1966.
* This is Toronto’s 19th seven–game series since 1967. The club is 7–11. A chronology: 1976 (lost quarterfinal to Philadelphia); 1978 (won quarterfinal over New York Islanders); 1986 (lost division final to St. Louis); 1987 (lost division final to Detroit); 1993 (won division semifinal over Detroit / won division final over St. Louis / lost conference final to Los Angeles); 1994 (won conference semifinal over San Jose); 1995 (lost conference quarterfinal to Chicago); 2001 (lost conference semifinal to New Jersey); 2002 (won conference quarterfinal over New York Islanders / won conference semifinal over Ottawa); 2003 (lost conference quarterfinal to Philadelphia); 2004 (won conference quarterfinal over Ottawa); 2013 (lost conference quarterfinal to Boston); 2018 (lost conference quarterfinal to Boston); 2019 (lost conference quarterfinal to Boston); 2021 (lost division semifinal to Montreal).
* Since 1967, the Leafs are 6–2 in Games 7 on home ice, defeating Detroit and St. Louis (1993); San Jose (1994); New York Islanders and Ottawa (2002); Ottawa (2004) / losing to Los Angeles (1993) and Montreal (2021).
* Twice since 1967, the Leafs have gone to overtime of Game 7, winning both (on the road). Lanny McDonald scored on Glenn Resch of the Islanders in 1978; Nikolai Borschevsky beat Tim Cheveldae of Detroit in 1993.
* The last time the Leafs won a playoff series with an overtime goal was May 17, 1999 at Pittsburgh (second round). Garry Valk scored on Tom Barrasso in Game 6 at the old Mellon Arena.
* The Leafs were last eliminated in overtime by the Washington Capitals (first round) on Apr. 23, 2017, when Marcus Johansson beat Frederik Andersen in Game 6 at the Air Canada Centre.
* Only twice have the Leafs appeared in a playoff game on May 14 — Saturday’s date — knocking off San Jose in Game 7 at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1994 / eliminating Ottawa in Game 7 at the Air Canada Centre in 2002.
My gut tells me Tampa Bay will win the law of averages on Saturday night and bounce the Maple Leafs from the opening round yet again. But, who knows? From the start of this series, Toronto has been the better team — even if marginally. The Leafs would surprise few observers by putting it all together in Game 7 and solidly conquering the defending champs. Neither has Tampa goalie Andrei Vasilveskiy been an overwhelming factor thus far, while Campbell’s brilliance during a 5–on–3 Lightning powerplay in Game 5 at Scotiabank Arena prevented the visitors from building on an early 2–0 lead and perhaps winning the series on home ice in Game 6. Many twists and turns are on the docket for Saturday night. In the end, however, one thing is certain: the scoreboard never lies.