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Some hopeful Maple Leaf Memories heading into Game 2 in Boston…

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.

I’d rather try something else today. It’s not exactly Red Kelly (then the Leaf coach, but a Hall-of-Fame player with Toronto and earlier, the Red Wings) and pyramid power in the 1976 playoffs against the Flyers, I grant you (only a few of you will even make sense of that reference, but whatever—it worked for Darryl Sittler for a while…) but it may provide a momentary glimpse of hope that, after only one game in the series, all is not lost. By the way, that's Kelly, left, scoring a goal against the Glenn Hall and the Hawks for the Leafs during the 1961-'62 NHL season in a game in Chicago.

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??)


In any event, you get my point.  I’m not saying that what I've described above will happen for the Leafs  this season. (By the way, we’ll all have to come to terms with the fact that we claimed to be surprised and satisfied that the Leafs even made the playoffs, and try to balance that against our tearing them apart for losing a game against a seasoned, if somewhat aging playoff team.) I’m simply presenting the obvious idea that a series can change pretty quickly.  A few breaks, a bit hit, hot netminding, injuries, the other team losing confidence…

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.

12 comments:

  1. I think it's important to keep perspective here. Do I think the Leafs are going to win? No I think they'll be lucky to win one game but I hope like hell they do win. I'm actually not that mad about last night. Sure they didn't play well but a fair portion of them are playing in their first playoffs.

    As has been stated here numerous times not many of us picked the Leafs to even make the playoffs, some did and good on them but the vast majority of didn't. Some of us (my hand is in the air) had them pegged as a lottery team so to me even one round is gravy. I suspect that Carlyle is still in learning mode about the players he has and this playoffs is going to go a long way to figuring out where some guys fit in moving forward. For just one example McArthur had better pick up his game a lot if he doesn't want to hit the free agent season as well a free agent.

    I had to laugh today while talking to my brother. He was telling me about last night when he was cursing the TV when his wife looked at him and asked "Why are you getting so mad? Didn't you tell me that they were going to loose in 5 games?" He just kind of looked at her and calmed down. This is all part of the learning process and we have a whole summer with lots of cap space to address some of the obvious flaws the Bruins are exposing. Rome wasn't built in a day people just relax, next year is going to be good I well believe.

    One last word on Carlyle. While I'm not a Carlyle hater I do think he has some of the blame for last night. It is just baffling to me that on the first game of the playoffs you come up with brand new lines some of which had guys who have never played with each other. I also fail to see why you play Phanuef in the regular season a ton of minutes and then have 3 dmen play more than him in the first game. If he is your number one (and I think he is) you play him till his legs fall off. Fraser played the most minutes of any dman last night. To me on a night when he is obviously having a bad game how on earth does he end up with the most ice time? Some curious decisions to be sure.

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    1. I certainly can't effectively defend all of Carlyle's decisions, Willbur. I, too, wonder about changing up some things in the first game of the series. You typically go with what got you there.

      Many weren't happy with his regular-season lineups and line configurations, so they likely won't love what he is doing now. (One example, Grabbo has to play with somebody. No matter where he plays and with whom, folks don't like where Carlyle puts him.)

      Your brother's spouse had it right.

      There will be lots of time this summer to plug roster holes, and to keep developing the kids down on the farm. Meantime, they just might surprise over the next few days.

      Thanks Willbur.

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  2. Hey Michael,

    Just couldn't find the time to post about Game 1 yesterday.

    I watched about 1 and 1/2 periods - or about the first half of the game - I think that first goal not only made the players a little too relaxed on the leafs - it also gave us fans - way too high expectations - like I said earlier in the playoffs - u take a shift at a time - a game at a time.

    Heck, now I am hearing that kostka fractured a bone - so he is out, but nerves definitely slowed the feet and minds of a lot of the leafs last night.

    I saw so many of them flopping all over the ice - when no one was around; a lot of the over the head passes were wiffed on; I noticed Reimer further back into the blue paint than I have since last year - from the 2nd period onwards - I sensed he was nervous of the bruins' relentless attack. I saw stupid penalties' being taken by our team and not enough accountability for each other by the play on ice.

    But heck, for many of them it was the nerves more than anything else - at least that is what I would chalk it upto after 1 game.

    Now for some of my recent memories of playoff comebacks - how about the penguins losing horribly to the wings one year ago in the cup finals - and then meeting them in the same situation again and losing the 1st 2 on the road - guess what - they won that series in seven games - now I am not saying we r the pens - not even close - but I would like to give that as an example of learning from a past experience - a symbol of development of a team.

    Look at the Blues last year - they have a coach fired early in the year - the new guys comes in - finds the right buttons to push - and they get some great goaltending and they r in the playoffs as the #2 seed in the west - back in after at least 2 years missed - if I remember correctly - they meet the kings in round 2 and are absolutely embarrassed and swept out of the playoffs. And this year - they have come back a little lower on the seeding and have met essentially the same Kings team and have a 2-0 series lead against them - a super effort in game 1 for them by none other than ex-leaf draftee - Alex Steen - oh he made last year conn smythe winner look silly.

    So, game one is no time to panic - but we also must temper our expectations and enjoy the ride for the moment - and be patient and hope for some smart drafting and trades by the management team, and some good coaching by the staff and some learning showed by this team going forward from their experiences.

    One thing I will like to say about having the bruins as a playoff opponent - u can't win against the bruins in a seven game series - if u try to out "tough/fight" the bruins, they will match u and beat u to a pulp - Komarov as an example from game 1. You don't let them run over u like the canucks or sabres have done in the past - but u out smart them and u exploit their weakness - a lack of foot speed and an overactive goalie - in my mind - he over-reacted on the goal the leafs got - I don't think that goes past Tim Thomas as easily.

    We all wish for our team to win - but again chill people - lets enjoy the playoffs - we finally got them. Although, I can understand the frustration of the fans - they wanted effort - which many feel was lacking - not sure if effort was lacking - I think execution was what was lacking.

    Let me know what you think.

    Anon from Scarborough.

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    1. As you suggest with your example of the Blues, Scarborough Anon, developing teams usually take steps and walk first before they run. We've seen that in sports so often. "Learning how to win" and "what it takes" and all of that. But it's usually true. The Leafs are a young team. Some players are being put in positions we did not even think they could possibly be in six months ago (what we did really know about Komarov, Fraser, Kostka, etc.) They all made significant contributions during the regular season and may in the playoffs as well. But it takes time, and if Carlyle is the right guy for this group and those players to come (and he might be, despite the constant harping about him) we may be in a much stronger position a year from now. Thanks Scarborough Anon.

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  3. portuguese leafMay 3, 2013 at 8:47 AM

    I have to admit I watched the game like Willbur's brother. As I've written here before, the mental hold the B's have on the Leafs is too strong and I think we will be lucky to win more than 1 game. BUT... I was watching, angrily, trying to figure out why the team was trying to lob pucks out of the defensve zone. I can remember 4 "lobs" being caught at the blueline by a Bruin and imediately creating havoc in our end just in the first period.

    The new lines were surprises to me too. I thought we would play the lines and style that got us in the platoffs in the first place. I saw the guys do things they hadn't before and it cost them. Inexperience? Pressure to do well? Trying too hard?

    We all want the team to do well and win. If they get back to playing tough, skate and don't invent anything new, who knows?

    It is early in the series and the Leafs can turn it around.

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    1. Yes, I've seen too often over the years that fans get a little too worked up maybe about the first game of a series, portuguese leaf. Not that there weren't things about the Leafs' performance that were concerning as the game went on, simply that it was the first playoff game for a lot of these guys- and the first for all of them in a Leaf uniform.

      That's not to say all will be well from here on out. If the Bruins want it, it will be tough. But as I said above, the Leafs have some say in the outcome, too, if they play with the edge needed at playoff time.

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  4. One game does not a series make, that's for sure, and I suppose anything can happen. I'm expecting a closer game tomorrow night, but don't have many expectations beyond that.
    I do get the feeling that management will use this series to assess just which changes we need to make, or which players we need to add/subtract, as we progress to being serious contenders. And I remember that both the Penguins and Hawks, to choose two, struggled in the playoffs at first, even with all their high picks and young talent, as the teams learned what it takes to compete in the playoffs. That mitigates the disappointment of a game like last Wednesday's to some extent. And who knows how we would have done had JvR scored that SH goal?
    As Anonymous says above, this is a year to temper our expectations and enjoy the ride.

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    1. Modest expectations seems to be the key, indeed, Gerund. As you mentioned, we can go back over hockey history the last forty years and teams had to lose in the playoffs before finally winning in later years- Bruins in late '60s, Islanders in late '70s, Oilers in early '80s, the clubs you cite, etc...)

      On to Game 2!

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  5. I remember a little something that I heard about in an interview (can't recall the participants, though) regarding that '93 Detroit series (where Wendel was 'less visible' for the first 2 games). It was said that Pat Burns had a 'series plan' (not just a 'game plan) and that he insisted that Clark 'hold back' on the physical play for the first 2 games (irrespective of the outcome). I think he wanted the Wings to get a little 'complacent' and thinking we were 'whipped'.

    Then the Wendel we all know and love, was 'unleashed' upon the unsuspecting Red Wings (probably a little fresher and ready to dominate at that point in the series). I seem to think it was intended to be a bit of an Ali 'rope-a-dope' strategy. It sure worked out well for an exciting series.

    That said, I wonder if Carlyle has a little something up his sleeve, respecting the unexpected (new) line combinations for game 1. What if he sensed his inexperienced flock was a bit too tense and overwhelmed going in to the game (like Kessel's absence from his media time). What if he 'distracted' the team with the new combinations in order to get them to focus on that issue instead? What if he actually provided himself (and the team) with a 'ready-made' excuse for the media and fans to dissect... all the while accomplishing some other goals.

    It seems like an opportunity to give everyone a real feel for the challenge that lies ahead, get over their jitters and play a little 'rope-a-dope' for the Bruins to 'believe'... I know I'm just spitballing here, but I never realized what Burns was doing in the Wings series (til years after the fact). At least we might find the 'real' Leafs may show up on Saturday and provide some real competition in the important Game 2 that you've noted. There was little doubt the Bruins would be ready for Game 1... I wonder if they'll be thinking they're 'home and cooled' and ripe for the picking?!

    BTW, the '76 pyramid thing was predicated upon the idea that the geometric shape was, itself, a source of power that would give the players a little added 'oomph' during the playoffs. There were multiple pyramid's beneath the players' bench and I remember the media and the team pointing to the idea that razor blades stay sharper for longer when placed within that shape. It was interesting enough to capture the team, media and a large portion of the public (pretty sure I made one out of straws or sticks as I was turning 14 ( I was pretty superstitious about my role in the Leafs success, figuring they won on my actual birth day and, to my knowledge, hadn't lost that day since, so didn't want to jinx them - haha. Of course, the Habs ended my birthday streak in '79, I believe)!

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  6. I always find those conspiracy-style theories fascinating, InTimeFor62 (in this case, regarding Burns and the Leafs in '93). But I also sometimes wonder how much stock we can put in them. The Leafs had no history of playoff success going into the spring of '93 (I'm trying to recall if we had even won a best-of seven-series since 1978 at the time), so it's somewhat difficult to imagine Burns telling Clark to essentially take the first two games off. That would be a risky and highly uncertain proposition, one would think. But who knows, eh?

    My guess is Carlyle knows he is in tough and is doing everything he can to motivate, inspire and prepare the team. We'll never know what his precise thoughts were regarding his line configurations in Game 1. But you raise some possibilities!

    I appreciate the detailed breakdown regarding Kelly's pyramid misdirection. I recall, of course, reading about it in the newspapers at the time. Anything to do, then and now, with math, physics, or science was well beyond my understanding. I was older than you, and likely tried to build some contraption myself during that series, and I don't even understand 3-D.

    Game 2 awaits, InTimeFor62!

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    1. Actually, I think the interview was 'reputable' and involved former Leafs... just can't remember the context (might have been the 'Legends of Hockey' series - not sure which one though).

      Perhaps, it came across over-stated, but I think Clark was just asked to refrain (completely) from fighting and to lay off the heavy hitting for those 2 games. I'm sure there were hits, but no 'devastating ones' and I'm quite sure he complied on the 'no fighting' aspect. I believe Wendel was asked to focus on offense and to stay out of the box... I seem to recall it was 'hard' on Clark to do as requested, but it turned out alright in the end!

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    2. He sure was a presence the rest of the playoffs that spring, that much we know, InTimeFor62!

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