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Toronto hosts the Sabres tonight: Lucy, Charlie Brown and the football

Tonight the Leafs host the Sabres. The win over the Bruins Saturday night once again brings hope. But hope is something that Leaf fans have felt countless times since the last championship season more than 40 years ago.

Those of you familiar with the long-running Peanuts comic know one of the occasional story lines has to do with Charlie Brown, a football, and his long-time childhood nemesis, Lucy.

How many times over the years has Lucy lured Charlie into believing she really will hold the ball long enough for him to ‘practice’ his place-kicking ability?

Every time he wonders, ponders—then relents. He trusts that things will be different this time and she will hold the ball in place so he can finally make a kick.

The end is always the same. Charlie ends up flat on his back after Lucy yet again pulls the football away at the last second.

Still, he keeps believing—and hoping the next time will be different.

Leaf fans will identify with this scenario, repeated time and again through the last 42 years and counting.

In short, since 1967, the Leafs have teased us mercilessly.

Let’s look back: After winning the Cup in ’67, surely, we thought, they would be competitive in 1967-’68, especially against all those ‘lousy’ expansion teams.

The team finished out of the playoffs.

In 1970-’71, the Leafs had me thinking they could beat the Rangers in the playoffs, after taking a 2-1 lead in the quarter-final series. They then fell flat and lost in 6 games.

The next season they were building a solid young team with future Hall-of-Famer Bernie Parent in goal and a number of potentially outstanding young defensemen in the line-up.

They all walked to the WHA, when owner Leaf Harold Ballard refused to “pay up”.

In 1974-’75 they had an awful regular season, but upset the heavily-favored LA Kings in the first-round of the playoffs.

Just when I thought, maybe…..they were swept in the next series in 4 straight.

In 1975-’76 the Leafs took the heavily-favored Flyers to 7 games, and led Game 7 right at the Spectrum in Philadelphia by a score of 2-1 in the second period. They got blown out.

Later that decade, they teased us when Lanny McDonald scored that memorable overtime Game 7 goal against the favored Islanders in ’78, without the injured Borje Salming.

Life looked good, until the powerful Montreal Canadiens swept them 4 straight in the next series, and did the same the next spring.

Then came the ‘80s. Nice nick-names like the ‘Kid Line’ (Boschman, Anderson, Saganiuk), the Hound Line (Courtnall, Leeman, Clark) emerged, as well as the drafting of the tough young winger on that Hound line, Wendell Clark. But they didn’t win a single playoff series in that entire decade, despite drafting world junior team goaltenders like Allan Bester and Ken Wreggett - and raising our hopes yet again.

The early ‘90s brought new hope with Pat Burns, Doug Gilmour and the now infamous game 6 against the Kings in LA. A missed Gretzky high-stick and the game- and eventually the chance to play Montreal for the Cup in the finals- was gone.

The next year, they won Game 1 of the semi-finals against Vancouver, but ran out of gas. We missed again.

Then came the arrival of superstar-in-waiting Mats Sundin. In Pat Quinn’s first year in 1998-’99 he led a remarkable turnaround after some terrible years. They made it to the semi-finals, but couldn’t beat Dominik Hasek’s back-up early in the series and never recovered.

A few years later, in 2002, the Leafs looked primed to walk past the Hurricanes and make it to the finals, but managed to lose the series at home in game 6- painfully, on a Mogilny give-away, in overtime.

The rest of this decade has seen close playoff losses to good Flyers teams, then a roster going backwards, missed playoffs since 2004, and a new man in charge promising, if not championships just yet, at least truculence.

Saturday night, the Leafs beat their nemesis this year, the Bruins, and showed a little of that promised grit. Gustavsson earned his first career shutout, and as I wrote earlier this season, it’s hard not to like a young goalie with his size, quickness and ability to inspire confidence in his teammates.

But Buffalo awaits tonight. The Sabres have been a pain since they joined the league in 1970-’71 and ex-Leaf coach Punch Imlach brought the Sabres to the old Gardens and hammered Toronto 7-2 in the first match-up between the two teams.

I don’t feel quite the same way I did when I posted before Saturday’s game (the time is right for a win, I wrote)—when I sensed the Leafs would beat the Bruins for the reasons I listed. Tonight is a bit of a different story.

Still, we’re getting to a point where we will see if this is a team, like many Leaf teams of the past 40 plus years, who can upset better teams on occasion, but can’t win when it really matters.

Games like the one tonight will help tell us if the current Leaf team, hard-working as they are, can really be more than a team which will on occasion win a game we may not expect them to win. They’ve defeated the Red Wings, the Capitals and now the Bruins. That’s all very nice. But what fans need to see is a run of games where they play well all over the ice from beginning to end, from the goal on out. They need to win several in a row—regardless of their opposition or whether they are at home or on the road.

Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders said it succinctly years ago: Just win, baby.

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