TORONTO (Apr. 14) — Once more, there is virtually nothing about the 82–game regular season that portends an abrupt playoff exit by the Toronto Maple Leafs. And, once more, the Maple Leafs have to exorcize the demons accumulated during the Brendan Shanahan/Kyle Dubas era. But, the challenge this year is not particularly imposing.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting the Leafs will waltz past the Tampa Bay Lightning, even if they should be a demonstrable favorite to emerge from the opening round for the first time since 2004. But, nothing more can be reasonably expected of the hockey club. Not unless the Florida Panthers pull off the biggest upset in Stanley Cup history and take out the stratospheric Boston Bruins. It is pure folly to anticipate a second–round triumph by Toronto (or any challenger) over the Division opponent and playoff rival that established National Hockey League records, this season, for wins (65) and points (135). There will be no satisfaction, however, from a seventh consecutive one–and–done by the top–heavy group that has propelled the Maple Leafs to their two best regular seasons in franchise history. Having clearly emerged in the second half of the 2022–23 schedule as a better team than the Lightning, this is the year for the Leafs to finally resolve their interminable, post–season drought.
Should Toronto lose to Tampa Bay, the “choke” label richly earned over the previous half–dozen playoff attempts will adhere like a prickly burr to clothing. Especially if the series ends, yet again, in a decisive match on home ice.
And, therein lies Toronto’s most–daunting threat.
To prevail, oddly enough, the Leafs will have to overcome their maximal gift: scoring prowess from the Big 4 up front. That may sound bizarre until you understand from where the “choke” moniker originated. And, it’s the reason I’m taking the Leafs to eliminate the Lightning in five games. Once beyond that juncture, the Toronto sphincters will unavoidably begin to tighten, for the Leafs have not proven capable of slamming the door on a playoff opponent. The club wears that frailty like an albatross. As compared with Tampa this season, Toronto finished 2018–19 a better club than Boston. The best playoff performance of the Mike Babcock era occurred in the fifth game of that opening–round clash with the Bruins: a 2–1 neck–grinder at TD Garden that provided the visitors a 3–2 series lead. With an opportunity to bounce the Beantowners on home ice in Game 6 — a matinee affair before national TV audiences on both sides of the border — the Leafs leapt ahead, 1–0, on a goal by Morgan Rielly midway through the first period. Then, they fell apart… crumbling to a 4–2 defeat that could not be overcome in Game 7. Particularly with “Soft Goal” Frederik Andersen gifting the Bruins two scores in a 5–1 road pounding. Strike one.
Then came the unexpected loss to Columbus in the COVID “bubble” qualifying round of August 2020. The Leafs were blanked in the conclusive fifth game, thereby missing the playoffs for the first time since 2016. Strike Two.
Whiff No. 3 should have prompted a significant change to the core of the playing roster and/or management. Instead, all were forgiven by the moguls on Bay St. for the 2021 debacle against a much–inferior Montreal team: the flubbing of a 3–1 series lead in the first playoff meeting between the ancient rivals since 1979. The Maple Leafs couldn’t close a pantry, let alone the Canadiens, and were again consumed at Scotiabank Arena in the decisive encounter, adding one goal to their putrid total. That figure rose to three goals in four elimination matches with a 2–1 loss in Game 7, last spring, to Tampa Bay, solidifying the playoff “choke” label affixed to the nucleus of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Rielly — a beggarly badge the Toronto foursome carries into the upcoming rematch with the Lightning. Though it’s a series the Maple Leafs should win, we must acknowledge that Tampa Bay is far–less of an underdog to Toronto than were Columbus (in 2020) or the Habs (2021). If the set goes beyond Game 5 at Scotiabank Arena, gasping sounds will begin to emanate from all parts of the city.
But, it says here — albeit cautiously — the Leafs will finally “get it done”… upending the Lightning in one game over the series minimum. Toronto earned such a favored posture with the emergence of Ilya Samsonov as a dependable starting goalie. Providing Samsonov is healthy (did he sustain a groin injury in his last home start?), this will offset the leverage Tampa Bay normally enjoys with future Hall–of–Famer Andrei Vasilevskiy. And, with perennial Norris Trophy candidate Victor Hedman, whose production plummeted from a career–best 85 points last season to merely 49 this year. From Valentine’s Day, onward, the Lightning appeared lethargic and unmotivated, crafting a mediocre 11–14–4 record. The Maple Leafs, in the same juncture, were 18–7–3, breezing past Tampa to secure second place in the Atlantic Division. Though we’ve been tricked before by the Blue and White, my sense is that Toronto legitimately moved beyond Tampa Bay as a playoff threat. Now, the onus falls on Matthews, Marner and Nylander to loosen their collars; loosen their grips, and finally close out a best–of–seven series.
Even if it procures a date against the black–and–gold marauders of Beantown.
With a hard swallow: Toronto in 5.
FROM JOHNNY TO THE JETT:
MAPLE LEAFS GOALIE LIST NOW AT 77
With the brief appearance by the University of Toronto’s Jett Alexander last week, the Toronto Maple Leafs have now deployed 77 goalies since May 2, 1967, when the club last won the Stanley Cup. The list begins with Johnny Bower on Oct. 14, 1967 and continues through Alexander’s cameo against Montreal. All names chronicled here made at least one appearance for the Blue and White. We aren’t sure (neither will we spend the time to check) whether this is a manpower record amid the 32 National Hockey League members… but we are certain it’s an all–time mark among the team with the longest championship drought — approaching 56 years.
Here is the chronological archive: JOHNNY BOWER, BRUCE GAMBLE, AL SMITH, MARV EDWARDS, GERRY McNAMARA, JACQUES PLANTE, BERNIE PARENT, MURRAY McLACHLAN, GORD McRAE, RON LOW, DOUG FAVELL, DUNC WILSON, EDDIE JOHNSTON, PIERRE HAMEL, WAYNE THOMAS, MIKE PALMATEER, PAUL HARRISON, JIRI CRHA, CURT RIDLEY, VINCENT TREMBLAY, JIM RUTHERFORD, MICHEL (BUNNY) LAROCQUE, BOB PARENT, RICK ST. CROIX, ALLAN BESTER, KEN WREGGET, BRUCE DOWIE, TIM BERNHARDT, DON EDWARDS, JEFF REESE, MARK LaFOREST, PETER ING, DAMIAN RHODES, GRANT FUHR, FELIX POTVIN, RICK WAMSLEY, DARREN PUPPA, DON BEAUPRE, MARCEL COUSINEAU, GLENN HEALY, CURTIS JOSEPH, COREY SCHWAB, TOM BARRASSO, SEBASTIEN CENTOMO, ED BELFOUR, MIKAEL TELLQVIST, TREVOR KIDD, JEAN-SEBASTIAN AUBIN, ANDREW RAYCROFT, SCOTT CLEMMENSEN, VESA TOSKALA, MARTIN GERBER, JUSTIN POGGE, JEAN-SEBASTIEN GIGUERE, JONAS GUSTAVSSON, JOEY MacDONALD, JAMES REIMER, BEN SCRIVENS, JUSSI RYNNAS, JONATHAN BERNIER, DREW MacINTYRE, GARRET SPARKS, FREDERIK ANDERSEN, JHONAS ENROTH, ANTOINE BIBEAU, CURTIS McELHINNEY, CALVIN PICKARD, MICHAEL HUTCHINSON, KASIMIR KASKISUO, JACK CAMPBELL, DAVID RITTICH, PETER MRAZEK, JOSEPH WOLL, ERIK KALLGREN, MATT MURRAY, ILYA SAMSONOV, JETT ALEXANDER.
ALL ABOUT MONEY WITH ROGERS
The Blue Jays did a nice job renovating their home ballpark during the off season. With owner Rogers Communications, however, there must always be a caveat. This occurs, once more, on the third level, behind home plate, where Toronto’s stadium is the only one in the modern history of baseball to not feature a press box. Last season, the traditional spot for reporters became another money grab for Rogers in the form of private suites. The media is again sequestered in the old football press box, down the left–field line, much closer to the foul pole than home plate. In a pique of largesse, the cable/Internet monolith allowed its in–house broadcasters — Sportsnet TV and Sportsnet–590 Radio — to remain in their conventional locations. But, the print media has been supplanted for money… which is all the company has cared about since founder Ted Rogers died in 2008.
An otherwise spectacular, mid–April eve (after a record–warm day) oversaw the Blue Jays second home game of the 2023 season, on Wednesday: an extra–innings triumph over the Detroit Tigers. Some of my images:
SPORTSNET AND SPORTSNET–590 HAVE RETAINED THEIR TRADITIONAL SPOTS BEHIND HOME PLATE. BUT, THE AREA IN THIS PHOTO TO THE RIGHT OF THE RADIO BOOTH (ABOVE THE SCOREBOARD) HAS BEEN CONVERED FROM A PRESS BOX TO A CASH GRAB; TYPICAL OF ROGERS.
ALL SEATS IN THE UPPER–BOWL OF ROGERS CENTRE WERE REPLACED OVER THE WINTER AND ARE NOW A HANDSOME NAVY BLUE. THE CONDOS AND HOTELS OF BAY STREET SOAR BEYOND THE RIGHT–FIELD SECTIONS OF THE 34–YEAR–OLD STADIUM, ADJACENT TO SCOTIABANK ARENA.
FRESH COATS OF PAINT AND SOME COSMETIC CHANGES HAVE IMPROVED THE ROGERS CENTRE.
THE WIDE–ANGLE VIEW FROM SEC. 533, ROW 4, DOWN THE LEFT–FIELD LINE. JUST PERFECT.
THE C.N. TOWER WAS COLORFULLY ILLUMINATED THROUGHOUT THE BASEBALL GAME.