Some games aren’t worth a lot of comment. In truth, Monday game at the ACC was, for me, on of those tilts. Most of the game was a bit of a snore-fest, but I’m pretty sure that, when we look back at these games in January, we won’t much care how artistic it was. Fact is, the Isles came to town on the wings of three straight wins. Though they have been cellar-dwellers in recent years, they have, like most aspiring sides, some nice young talent that will be fun to watch in the years to come.
That said, they’re not exactly the ’77 Habs (nor are the Leafs, I should be quick to add), so the Leafs should take the game to the Islanders, especially on home ice. And they did.
Phaneuf was noticeable and physical but my thought was Gunnarsson was perhaps the most important Leaf. (Yes, Monster earned the shutout and make some good saves, but it was not a super-strenuous night for him. That said, he didn’t make the kind of mistakes that would have allowed the Islanders back in the game.) Gunner seemed to be in the right spot at the right time, and made a particularly deft little stick check in his own zone on a dangerous play in the second period when it was still a one-goal game. I thought it was a fairly typical Gunnarsson effort on the night, quietly effective.
Of course, you can’t forget the guy who scored two goals (Lombardi) or Kessel’s big marker to give the Leafs their two-goal cushion in the third period.
But maybe the one thing that stood out for me most on the night was not the game itself but a comment former Leaf defenseman Bob McGill (now an analyst with Leafs TV) made about Nazem Kadri. He seemed to draw a comparison with long-time NHL’er Steve Larmer (a one-time teammate of McGill), after Kadri had made a neat little play to win a battle along the boards.
I’ll post on this another time, but it did get me thinking. Steve Larmer…hmmm. That’s not a bad “comparison”, if you want to dream a bit. Larmer was a solid winger, not too big but very effective, with the Blackhawks from the early ‘80s to the early ‘90s. Larmer finished his career on Broadway, helping the Rangers win a Cup in 1994.
He scored more than 400 goals in his NHL career and was a solid all-around player, sort of a borderline Hall-of-Famer. I don’t think Larmer scored his first NHL goal until he was 21. How old is Kadri?
The thing I really wanted to focus on today is what comes next for the Leafs, as in the game Tuesday night on Long Island. You might recall that after the win over Minnesota last week, I mentioned that while the victory was nice and all (coming as it did against a floundering team), the key was what the Leafs did afterwards, over the subsequent games.
I would echo that thought now and add it is particularly the case this week. Earning two points on the road Tuesday night would be the perfect bookend for the Leafs heading into the All-Star break.
This brings to mind a story about which may not seem at all relevant at first. And I probably won’t do the story justice but I’ll try.
Some of you who visit this site are not football fans (“American” football, I am referring to) so some context is in order. In the early and mid-1960s, the Green Bay Packers were a National Football League team that had a great history and tradition. However, the franchise had come through some particularly harsh and down times throughout the 1950s. (In fact, it could be argued that their history was somewhat like that of the Maple Leafs. The Leaf franchise was founded by Conn Smythe, while the Packers were the brainchild of “Curly” Lambeau, if I’m not mistaken. Both were prominent men who built proud franchises when professional sports were really just gaining a foothold in the public sporting consciousness. Both men remain famous to this day.
In any event, the coach and General Manager of the Packers was Vince Lombardi. He never played in the NFL but was a well-regarded college and then assistant coach in the NFL. When he took command of the Packers in time for the 1958 season, he was a first-time NFL head coach. He instantaneously turned a one-win team into a contender—and ultimately, a dynasty.
This somewhat mirrored Toronto GM and coach Punch Imlach’s experience, He never played in the NHL, but coached in the minors before leading the Leafs, starting in, coincidentally, 1958. He went on to oversee a squad that would capture 4 Cups over the next decade. Lombardi ran the Packers with an iron first and led his charges to 5 NFL championships, but unlike Imlach, was beloved and revered by players and fans alike.
The Packers were not a wealthy franchise, In fact they were community-owned. One of their top defensive players, Willie Davis, was one of the best in the league at his position, defensive end. You have to understand that salaries were miniscule in those days compared to the multi-millions that professional athletes make now.
Davis, an All-Pro, was maybe making $12,000 or so a year in the early ‘60s. Maybe not even that, I remember reading some years later. Each off-season Davis would visit Lombardi in the GM’s office and ask for a $1,000 raise. Each year Lombardi would explain that, even though the team had had great success the season prior (everyone was on one-year contracts at the time), there was simply no room in the budget for that kind of an increase. Davis, being the good “team guy”, would walk out of the office and head back home, minus a raise.
And feel badly about himself.
This went on for a couple years. Finally, Davis went in one year and asked yet again. Lombardi started to give Davis the same song and dance when Davis stopped his boss and simply said, “Coach, this is how much the thousand dollars means to me: my getting or not getting that money will be the difference between feeling like I want to go home and hit my head against a wall, or feeling like a million bucks….”
I may be paraphrasing the exact words, but you get the idea.
Lombardi immediately shifted gears, reflecting on what his player had sacrificed over many years for his team, his community—and for Lombardi himself.
He told Davis, “Willie, if it means that much to you, then you have your raise.” I can’t remember if Lombardi gave Davis even more than he asked for, but the point was simply: as the management leader of the team, Lombardi represented the organization and its values. He was the guy who signed the cheques—and relied on the loyalty of his players in an era when that meant everything. He knew how important it was for a veteran player like Davis to feel good about himself.
While a thousand dollars was a fair bit of money in those days, it was worth it to Lombardi for his player to truly feel “like a million bucks”.
How does this relate to the Leafs?
Well, it’s not as touching as the Lombardi story ( a true story, by the way), I realize. But my point is simply this: after Tuesday night’s game, the Leafs will have a full week off before their next game on January 31. That one will be Game 49 in an 82-game season.
If the Leafs win Tuesday night on the road, they will go into the all-star break on a two-game win streak, having won three of four and in a tight battle for the final playoff spots in the East.
More importantly, they will have seven days to think about how they feel about themselves, their team, their season thus far. To go into that layoff on the heels of a couple of wins, a victory on the road and being in strong playoff contention…well, they just might feel like a million bucks.
But if they lose on the Island, against the struggling Islanders, and finish on a losing note as they head to their week-long break, they may feel like….well, like something less than a million bucks.
How much is a win worth? Are they all the same?
Yes and no. Tuesday night’s game, for my money, is not a “must win” or anything along those lines because of a temporary playoff “position”. But it is perhaps the most important game of the season for the reason I just mentioned: it’s a winnable game on the road against a team they can beat. And if they win, the Leafs can head into the break—and enjoy it—knowing that when they come back, those good feelings will still be with them, as they embark on the all-important final stretch run.
And they won’t feel like spending seven days hitting their heads against a wall.