TORONTO (Apr. 27) — There is no such thing as a sure thing in professional sport, particularly in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Otherwise, the Boston Bruins would be cooling their heels and awaiting the survivor of the Toronto–Tampa Bay series. Instead, the Bruins — historically good this season with 65 wins and 135 points — have been lugged into a penultimate match by the pesky Florida Panthers. Boston will prevail, probably tomorrow night in Game 6 hard by the Everglades, but few anticipated this playoff round to be nearing an apex.
As for the Leafs and Lightning, our city is poised to erupt in Stanley Cup euphoria tonight. Even if a victory in Game 5 at Scotiabank Arena ferries the local lads a mere 25% toward the National Hockey League title. That’s what escaping the first playoff round will mean to an entire generation of Toronto hockey zealots. My son, Shane, for example, is 26 years old. He was only seven when the Leafs eliminated Ottawa in the 2004 opening series — calling his dad on the press box phone every time Mats Sundin, Gary Roberts or Darcy Tucker scored a goal. His recollection, nonetheless, is vague. Far more distant would be a memory of the Leafs last winning a best–of–seven series in five games. That occurred on Apr. 18, 1963, when the club, coached by Punch Imlach, eliminated Detroit in the Stanley Cup final at Maple Leaf Gardens for the middle of three consecutive championships. Eddie Shack scored the winning goal on Terry Sawchuk at 13:28 of the third period. Dave Keon added an empty netter.
Since that time, Toronto has once swept a best–of–seven affair: winning four straight over the beleaguered Senators from Apr. 13–18, 2001. When the World Trade Center towers in lower–Manhattan were still erect.
Perhaps the surest Game 5 bet occurred on June 9, 1994. I was in New York, covering the most–thrilling Stanley Cup final of my years as a reporter at The FAN–590. The Rangers, with the longest–ever championship drought in the NHL (54 years… it now belongs to the Leafs at 56 years and counting) had won consecutive road games in Vancouver to procure a 3–1 series lead over the Canucks, coached by Pat Quinn. I still have my copies (above) of the June 9 and 10 New York Post — the first claiming TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT! on the front cover, with a large photo of the Stanley Cup on the rear. A quick, three–goal outburst by the Canucks, after the Rangers had rebounded from a 3–0 deficit in the third period, stunned Madison Square Garden and vicinity, generating the Post’s AGONY front page the following day. I was back at the Garden for Game 7, when the Rangers finally prevailed.
The stakes aren’t nearly as high tonight for the Leafs. It just seems that way. A victory downtown in Game 5 would likely arouse general manager Kyle Dubas, who moved heaven, earth and 25% of his roster prior to the NHL trade deadline. Precisely for this circumstance. If you remember the 1976 cult movie Slapshot!, starring the late Paul Newman, there’s a scene where the owner of the Charlestown Chiefs bellows “they’ve got contracts in their pockets!” As, likely, do the tall foreheads at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment in the event of a first–round playoff triumph over Tampa. In his Toronto Star column today, former Leaf Nick Kypreos, who played for the ’94 Rangers, provided a succinct summary: “Most GMs around the league would die for a bar that low to get a lucrative new contract, but most GMs don’t work for one of the most valuable sports empires on the planet with a starving fan base desperate for a morsel of success.” No person could better encapsulate the situation… or with fewer words.
With close to 72 hours to either chew on, or brush off, the startling collapse of Game 4 (the Leafs scored three goals in the latter half of the third period to overcome a 4–1 deficit; then won the match in overtime), the experienced and often–poised Lightning will probably throw their best at the home side tonight. Close to Tampa’s best wasn’t enough to win Game 3, or to slam the door in the fourth match on Monday. The Leafs, adroitly obstructing the vision of Andrei Vasilevskiy on floating shots from the boards and mid–point, have driven the future Hall–of–Fame goalie to distraction. Taking up residence in front of the Tampa net would not have been as simple with 6–foot–3, 225–pound Erik Cernak in the line–up. Tampa’s shut–down defender hasn’t played since absorbing an elbow to the face from Michael Bunting in the opener. And, though neither has Bunting suited up (given a three–game suspension), his treacherous maneuver may have been the most–impactful of the entire playoff round.
A Maple Leafs victory tonight will touch off several hours of horn honking all over the GTA. A loss will induce silence… and initiate an “oh oh, here we go again” posture among skittish rooters that have endured the playoff debacles of yesteryear. I’m betting on Door No. 1 because I suspect the Leafs drained Tampa Bay of its spirit with their miraculous revival on Monday. But, in this city, and with hockey, you just never know.