TORONTO (Apr. 28) — If nothing else, the Maple Leafs will have calendar karma tomorrow night in their second attempt to eliminate the Tampa Bay Lightning. You’ve got to be an old fart like me to remember Saturday, Apr. 29, 1978, but 4½ decades hasn’t marginally diminished the recollection of Lanny McDonald’s overtime goal on Glenn Resch at the Nassau Coliseum that provided the Leafs a Game 7 triumph over the fast–rising New York Islanders.
It was clearly the high–water mark of an otherwise inglorious epoch in franchise history (1972–90), during which owner Harold Ballard ran the team into the substratum. But, tomorrow night will be precisely 45 years since Machine Gun Lanny sent Leafs Nation into hours of overnight weekend euphoria, capping a Toronto quarterfinal comeback from 2–0 and 3–2 series deficits against the club, beginning two years later, that would win four consecutive Stanley Cups under general manager Bill Torrey; coach Al Arbour; superstar players Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin and Billy Smith. Apr. 29, 2023: Will calendar karma prevail for the Leafs at Amalie Arena?
FRONT PAGE OF TORONTO STAR SPORTS THE MORNING AFTER LANNY SLAYED THE ISLANDERS.
Understandably, trepidation has begun to overwhelm Toronto’s skittish fans after a typically somnolent performance by the club in Thursday night’s elimination match at Scotiabank Arena. It seems the current iteration of the Maple Leafs couldn’t kill an ant, let alone engender hockey homicide when presented the opportunity. How could any club in hockey, basketball or baseball fail in ten consecutive chances to close out a playoff opponent? That alone should provide the Leafs a dubious corner in the Hockey Hall of Shame. Even if it does conquer the Lightning in one of the remaining two encounters of this series, would any of us reasonably consider this group a timely, clutch outfit? It’s as if the law of averages — and nothing else — needs to guide Toronto past the opening round of Stanley Cup toil for the first time in 19 years. And, it’s the prime reason that all bets are now off the table.
I chose the Leafs to upend Tampa Bay in five games on a couple of accounts: a) Toronto was much the better team in the final two months of the regular schedule. And, b) once beyond Game 5, the Leaf collars would begin to tighten, owing to the playoff debacles of the past six years. So, here we are, having opened the dreaded Door No. 2. From this point, forward, a third factor comes into play. As I wrote here after Game 3: Every Stanley Cup team needs a goalie to pilfer a game or two along the way, as did Ilya Samsonov in the third match. Neither is it plausible to consider that [Andrei] Vasilevskiy will continue to scuffle, even if the Leafs, inexplicably, bring out the worst in the future Hall–of–Fame stopper. At any juncture of this playoff round — as with so many in the past — Andrei the Great could begin to lock down the Tampa twine. It is likely to happen the longer the series progresses… and is the reason I strongly suggested the Leafs finish off the Lightning in five. Nothing about that recommendation has withered. Neither has the warning about Vasilevskiy, who amped it up, big time, in Game 5.
Perhaps that is why Leafs Nation — predictably yet justifiably — morphed from euphoria and confidence on Thursday into utter hopelessness today. Just look at any social media outlet or team–related chat forum and you’ll notice the fear and resignation. One can barely imagine how those sentiments will multiply if Tampa Bay wins again tomorrow night and forces a decisive match on Monday here in town. The apprehension, even with a 3–2 series lead, comes from a total lack of opportune playoff results during the William Nylander–Mitch Marner–Auston Matthews era. The club mentioned at the top of this blog was no–more gifted than the current edition, which may not possess a Borje Salming, even if the late, great Swede missed the majority of the 1978 playoff run after sustaining an eye injury in Game 3 against the Islanders. Morgan Rielly, thus far, has largely stepped up from his mediocre regular–season and is providing the Leafs a No. 1–caliber defenseman. But, McDonald, Mike Palmateer, Darryl Sittler, Dave (Tiger) Williams and Ian Turnbull (performing marvelously in Salming’s absence) proved far–more capable of rising to a playoff challenge that the current team. Even in the years prior to 1978.
MY RECENT PORTRAIT OF LANNY McDONALD, STANDING PROUDLY IN THE HOCKEY HALL OF FAME.
Having covered the Leafs, home and away, for so many years at The FAN–590, Canada’s first all–sports radio station, I can commiserate with the cast of reporters and commentators that are following the 2023 club. It must be as tiring to quote players saying “we believe in this group” — year after year after year — than it is to read or listen to such babble. But, what’s the alternative? Rielly standing in front of cameras and microphones to claim “we know we’re going to choke again. Just hang in there with us?” Show–me time for the Maple Leafs arrived in the spring of 2018, during the first of consecutive playoff rounds against Boston. It blossomed in the 2020 qualifying round against an otherwise–dismal Columbus team… and erupted after the botched, 3–1 series lead against Montreal a year later. Last spring may have offered a mulligan. The Leafs stood toe–to–toe with Tampa Bay and were unable to finish the series on home ice in Game 7 (a recurring theme). But, the Lightning had won the previous two Stanley Cup titles and were motoring toward a third appearance in the championship round. This spring won’t be as forgiving, not after the Leafs easily outpointed the Lightning down the stretch of the regular season… and won consecutive games they should have lost at Amalie Arena to grab a commanding lead prior to Thursday.
The path to Round 2 is still evenly paved for the Blue and White. It will, however, be strewn with boulders if Tampa Bay finally wins on home ice tomorrow. Maybe the ghost of Machine Gun Lanny will be in Toronto’s corner.