It’s not quite on the same scale, but it was pretty darn important to the Toronto Marlies on Tuesday night, when Greg Scott's big-time performance won a game for the Leaf farm team- and also instantly brought back memories of a big Maple Leaf playoff game of my youth. (I’ll come to that old-time game in a moment.) I was so caught by the instant memory that Scott’s performance created for me that I felt compelled to Tweet about it right away.
In Abbotsford, the Marlies were in a somewhat precarious situation in the third period. They were trailing 1-0 against the tight-checking Heat. A loss would tie the best-of-seven series, with Game 5 coming up Wednesday night, also on the road, before a return to Toronto to finish the series- with no guarantees.
But Scott, the Marlie winger, had one of those memorable performances that Leaf and Marlie fans will talk about for a while. Early in the third period, he scored on a strong wrist shot, which rocketed in above the shoulder of the Abbotsford goaltender, to tie the game at 1. It may have looked like a harmless shot, but the young Marlie actually got a lot on the fast-rising wrister, and the game was suddenly tied at one.
Later in the third, when the Marlies were killing (yet another) penalty, Scott jumped on a loose back at the Abbotsford blue line and had no one between him and goalie Danny Taylor. He drove hard to the net on his off wing (old-time Montreal great Rocket Richard used to score a lot of goals just that way) while protecting the puck. He cut in front of the goaltender with a nice deke, slipping the puck between Taylor's legs as he swept past him. It was a beauty of a goal—and a 2-1 Marlie lead.
An empty netter (that one he skated right into the net, just to be sure—he wasn’t going to take any chances) wrapped up the proceedings and gave the Marlies what should be an insurmountable lead in a series where the opposition seems to have a hard time finding the back of the net. (Game 5 in the series is underway as I post this; the series could be over by the time you read this piece...)
So exactly how did this great performance from Scott remind me of another moment in Leaf history?
Well, in the spring of 1964, the Maple Leafs were coming off two consecutive Stanley Cups. But in the 1963-’64 season, things weren’t quite clicking. Then General Manager and coach Punch Imlach made a huge late-season trade (they didn’t call it the “deadline” in those days), sending Dickie Duff and Bob Nevin, two really fine young Leafs, along with a boat load of junior stars (including Rod Seiling) to the Rangers for veteran forwards Andy Bathgate and Don McKenney.
In the short term the move worked out (though I always have rued giving away both Nevin and Duff, who went on to long and outstanding careers elsewhere…) and the Leafs ended up winning their third Cup in succession.
But it wasn’t easy. First they had to get through the Montreal Canadiens, who had been re-shaping their roster in the early ‘60s. (Between 1965 and 1969, they went on to win the Cup four years out of five…). The semi-final series with the Habs was tied at 3 games apiece heading to Game 7 at the Forum in Montreal. Beating Montreal at home in a Game 7 was just not done in those days. Heck, just beating Montreal in a playoff game at the old Forum was something special, if you could do it.
Montreal was the heavy favorite, but little Dave Keon (seen at right in early 1960s game action against the Red Wings and defenseman Warren Godfrey) stole the show that night. He had played well in the series to the point, but had not scored a goal. However, in Game 7, he scored all 3 goals in a hard-fought Toronto victory. The last was scored into an empty net.
It wasn’t easy, but the Leafs did go on for their third Cup in a row that spring. It took a Bobby Baun broken-ankle overtime goal in Game 6 in Detroit to do it. (The Leafs had to work awfully hard for that ’64 Cup, as I’ve written here before…)
I couldn’t help but think of Keon’s big game in ’64, when Scott scored his last goal Tuesday night. The Leafs and Marlies both won a crucial game on the road. The final score each time was 3-1. One player scored all three goals for the Leafs and Marlies. And the last goal was scored into an empty net. (I can't remember if one of Keon's goals was also short-handed.)
We should make no mistake. While these are not the Stanley Cup playoffs, the outcome matters every bit as much to these AHL players who are fighting to capture a Calder Cup. For Scott, a 23 year-old from British Columbia—a “late-bloomer" according to Dallas Eakins—it had to be a pretty special night. Let’s see if the Marlies go on to duplicate what the big team did back in ’64.
Sometimes, history does repeat itself—in sports, too.