It’s easy to find fault with the Maple Leafs on the heels of their (not unexpected, in fairness) Game 1 loss in Boston. As fans, we can do the usual: pick on certain players (as though the loss can be attributed to one or two guys, c’mon) or the goalie (“he didn’t steal us a game”, etc.) or the coach, who for a major segment of Leafland, is now a lightning rod for constant criticism over every little move—and behind all the team’s woes, apparently.
Precedents, you ask? Well of course there are all kinds of examples of teams who lost the first game and came back to win a series (in all sports). That’s hardly uncommon. (Heck, the Red Sox were down 3-0 in games against the almighty Yankees a few years ago and won the series. We all know it has happened, albeit infrequently, in hockey, too.)
My reference point is simply that the early games of a series may not necessarily portend what is in fact coming later in the series. (There are many more examples that the first couple of games tell us exactly that, but let’s set that aside for today.)
Before I go on, I just want to make a point that I’ve made in this space before, but probably not in quite a while. (The Leafs have not been in the playoffs for quite a while, so I don't get to make the point all that often…): whatever statistics may tell you, I’ve long believed that, when you open the series on the road, the most important games in the series are often Games 2 and 4. (I won’t go into detail, but I have my reasons.)
But on the question of the Leafs having some degree of playoff success after looking awful early on in a series, here are some historical memories (and a few fun facts) that may trigger hope:
- In 1967, the Leafs were absolutely throttled by both the Hawks and the Habs in Game 1 of their respective series, yet won Game 2 in each series and came back to win both rounds in 6 games. A huge Dave Keon (right) short-handed breakaway goal turned the tide in Game 2 at a raucus Chicago Stadium that spring. From there, Johnny Bower and Terry Sawhuck had just enough big games in goal to get the Leafs to a championship though goodness, it wasn't easy. Montreal and Chicago were both powerhouses back the, truly elite teams in that era.
- In 1976, the Leafs lost the first two games in Philadelphia against the Flyer hoodlums, but pushed the series to 7 games (and even had the lead early in the second period in Game 7). That was the spring of Sittler's 5-goal playoff performance against the hated "Broad Street Bullies" and yes, the aforementioned days of "pyramid power" which I can't really explain properly, but maybe someone here can. (Kelly's fanciful but intended misdirection did take the onus off the players who were heavy underdogs against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, and it gave the local Toronto media something unusual to focus on...)
- In 1978, they lost to the Islanders in the opening two games on the road, and some thought the series would be over in four games. With future Hall-of-Fame defenseman Borje Salming hurt and out of the lineup for the duration, Ian Turnbull (right) played like he never did before or after and the Leafs upset the emerging powerhouse Islanders in 7 games. (Yes, for those too young, that was the famous Lanny McDonald Game 7 overtime goal…). Between 1968 and 1993, it was tough at times being a Leaf supporter, and that spring of '78 was a huge highlight for a lot of us Leaf fans. After upsetting New York, the Leafs gave everything they had but simply did not have enough for the Montreal Canadiens, who had a remarkable array of talent in those days. (They had guys in the press box who truly could have been stars on other teams and that may not be an exaggeration).
- In 1993, Leaf fans of that era will well recall that the Red Wings absolutely took it to the Leafs in the first two games of the quarter-finals on the road at the Joe Louis Arena. The criticism of Wendel Clark was incessant—from Leafs fans and opposing players. There were references to Wendel being “Wendel at home, Wendy on the road…”, for example. Clark and the Leafs fought back and won the series in 7 games, with little Borschevsky scoring the ultimate OT winner in that marathon match-up. It's funny, revisionist history suggests Wendel was always a beloved Maple Leaf and yes, he was, in many ways. The fact is, however, many fans were really perturbed when he would go through periods when Clark (right) seemed disinterested, or went through lengthy injury issues. Even then owner Maple Leaf owner Harold Ballard took a shot at Wendel for missing so much game-action. So it wasn't always smooth-sailing for Clark in Toronto. (Historical note when thinking back to that Detroit series in the spring of '93: Steve Yzerman’s leadership was questioned for years in Detroit, until he/they finally broke through and won a Cup, and then he was called one of the great leaders in hockey…)
- I get all the early 2000s era Ottawa series confused in my mind (I can remember something that happened in 1964 like it was yesterday, but ten years ago, I’m struggling. Maybe it is because there were fewer teams and fewer players in the old days…), but was there not a series where we were down two games to none after the first two contests in Ottawa, and came back to win the series in six? Am I “mis-remembering”? But I know we came back to beat the Senators after things looked bleak one year. (I don't think that was the same series as the Sundin, lower left, OT 'ping' marker, but again, it all meshes together for me...maybe someone can help me put the pieces together??)
No, I know this is not 1967, '1976 or 1993 and hockey is different nowadays, it seems, but the Bruins (most of the guys still on this Bruin team) have in fact given up big leads in a series before, just a few short years ago. Heck, this past season, they blew a lot of big leads in regular-season games. I’m not saying Boston was not full value for their win in Game 1. They were, to be sure. I’m only putting forward the notion that they are not necessarily home and cooled out—and that the Leafs can have something to say about the outcomes; that stranger things have happened—even to our beloved Maple Leafs, in the playoffs.
Despite all the unhappiness I detected (it wasn’t hard) after the Game 1 loss, and all the in-fan bickering and the poison pen commentary directed at a couple of players (unfairly so, in my mind; it remains a team game) and of course, our “lousy” coach (not my word), the good news for me is that I know, deep down, Leaf fans just want to see the team do well and win some games.
On that we can all agree. Maybe it starts Saturday night. Or maybe Monday. Let’s hang in together.