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We need a boost in Leafland, so let’s go back to Lanny McDonald’s overtime winner against the Islanders in ’78—still a great memory

The last while here Leafworld has been a bit unsettling.  I see Leaf supporters (myself included) adopting positions about the "why's" and "wherefore's" of how we got here yet again this season.  We inevitably end up disagreeing with each other and sometimes, also end up fracturing what is already an often fragmented and fragile fan base.

So since we can't, as fans, do anything about the present, and can only hope that the good signs we see in the current line-up will pay dividends in the near future, why not pause for a night and, rather than talk about the present doldrums, harken back to a much happier time and moment in Maple Leaf history.

Now, compared to teams who have actually won a Cup in the past 45 years (Hab fans should ready no further, for example, and modern-era Red Wing, New Jersey and even Colorado supporters can stop reading, too) even most Leaf fans will acknowledge that an overtime goal in the quarter-finals  of the NHL playoffs shouldn’t be the ultimate high point of cheering for a team over the last four and a half decades.

But when there’s not really all that much to choose from, hey, it is what it is. (In terms of relative importance, I wonder if fans who lived through both eras prefer the Borschevsky goal against Detroit in ’93, or “Dougie’s” wraparound OT winner against Cujo and the Blues that same spring- or is McDonald's marker still the "best"?)

In any event, in that wonderful spring of 1978, the Leafs were a team still built around Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald up front and Borje Salming on defense, with young and cocky Mike Palmateer in goal. The team had fought the Flyers hard each of the previous three seasons in the playoffs, but always came up short.  (They had Philly in the spring of 1977, having won the first two games at the old Spectrum.  Then, they were leading 2-0 in Game 3 at home in the second period, before the roof caved in.  There is more on that series here…)

The Leafs had acquired a tough, grinding winger in Dan Maloney before the trade deadline in February of 1978.  (Note:  we really didn’t call it the “trade deadline” in those days; it was more that you had to have your rosters settled before the playoffs, as I recall, and the trade thing was just part of it…)  While they gave up Errol Thompson, who was a fine player on a line with Sittler and McDonald, and two high draft picks, the Leafs and General Manager Jim Gregory knew they needed toughness if they wanted to go anywhere in the playoffs. So they got the toughest guy out there, someone who could also play and score goals.

Maloney was certainly a factor and proved his worth in the Islander series. (The Leafs had already disposed of the LA Kings in a preliminary round, as I recall.)  The Leafs dropped the first two games on the Island, won a pair at home, before succumbing again on the road in Game 5.

Now, in a sense, the real series turning point had actually already happened.  Salming suffered an eye injury that took him out for the duration of the playoffs.  (Not many guys wore visors in those days…)  This is when his enigmatic partner, Ian Turnbull, stepped up and played outstanding hockey just to help get the Leafs to a 7th and deciding game.

Game 7, played on Long Island, was a tight, tense game that went into overtime. (I was working up in Sault Ste. Marie at the time, watching the contest with a friend on TV.)  In one of those plays that seem to spring out of nowhere, McDonald suddenly found himself in alone against Islander goalie “Chico” Resch.  Lanny quickly wristed a shot to Chico’s left-hand (glove) side and suddenly, the Leafs had won a huge best-of-seven playoff round.

I (probably like a lot of Leaf supporters at the time) was shocked to see the Leafs upset the Islanders.  Absolutely stunned- but thrilled.  The Isles were a very solid young team, built around superstar defenseman Denis Potvin and rugged young center Bryan Trottier.  They played with a lot of grit and toughness under coach Al Arbour, the former Leaf player who went on to coach the Islanders to four Stanley Cups not long afterwards. 

Without Salming, who was in his prime at the time, there seemed little chance the Leafs could actually win. But when McDonald scored, the Leafs went wild with joy on the ice and my friend and I weren’t the only blue and white fans hooting and hollering across Ontario (and much of Canada) that night. (Within two years, less actually, former Leaf GM Punch Imlach had returned to Toronto and traded away McDonald to, of all teams, the woeful Colorado Rockies.  That was awful.  But I won't focus on that for today...) You can see a picture of Lanny in action with the old Rockies at right. Great uniforms, eh?

But in 1978, the Leafs looked like a team of destiny, under the young, imaginative, highly tactical and often inspirational head coach Roger Nielson.  But even destiny can crumble if you come up against a superior force, and that year, the Montreal Canadiens were just that, as they took out the Leafs in four straight games in the semi-finals. That Montreal team was one of the best of all-time, with a Hall-of-Fame goalie in Ken Dryden, three superstar defensemen (Savard, Lapointe and Robinson) and a forward contingent so loaded that they had guys in the press box every night who were talented NHL-caliber players.

Still, that was the first time, I believe, that the Leafs had made it that far in the playoffs since 1967, and would be the last time they did so until, well, 1993.

That may be why Leaf fans like myself still talk about Lanny’s overtime goal against the favored Islanders almost as though it was a Cup-winner—just like, I think, many younger Leaf fans think that way about the Borschevsky marker against the favored Red Wings in the spring of ’93.

For many of us as Leaf fans, it was.

I'd love to hear your thoughts, if you have memories of '78 or '93.....


  1. All three goals were very memorable, but I'd pick MacDonald's as my favorite. I don't know why it seemed so unlikely that we'd beat the Islanders - possibly because of the previous losses. For me, the loss to Philly the year before was my lowest moment as a Leaf fan - still is, for that matter - so the tension was ratcheted up pretty high at the thought we might lose in OT. When he scored, I leapt out of my chair and bounced around the room, whooping and hollering - and I was by myself!

  2. Given the current state of affairs, my wife wonders why I keep rooting for the Leafs. Of course, to her hockey is just a nonsensical jumble, punctuated by goals, the only part of the game that makes sense to her. To me, hockey is beautiful patterns of movement, form and violence beyond the work of the best choreographer, and a melodrama that makes her Coronation Street look like, well a soap opera. Those goals are wonderful examples of why we keep at this, and even she can understand from those special moments, why her late father (NHL calibre from what I hear, but too short) and husband (NHL size but certainly not calibre) drift into meditative concentration for hours at a time in which she becomes a faint speck in the conscious mind.

    I find it difficult to choose between those goals, each one is etched in my memory as if on a rock. Given that I cannot choose between them, maybe I can offer one observation: Each of those players, Lanny MacDonald, Nick Borschevsky and Doug Gilmour played with magnificent heart. Dougie did not reverse direction behind the net with quite the elegance I saw in Alexander Semin the other day, but I do not think that Semin has altered the course of a playoff series the way that Gilmour has. I hate to let the present impose, but when it mattered most, these players turned out to be just difference makers we pine for today.

  3. Bobby C....Thanks for a great post. I smiled throughout your reference to your late father-in-law and your better half- as she struggles to understand your overall fascination with hockey! But it's great that she can indeed appreciate the "special moments". They may be or seem infrequent, but when they occur...well, I don't know if the word "sublime" fits, but there is something really out of the ordinary happening in real time, in an event happening at that very moment- and those moments live in our memories forever.

    Lanny's goal won a magical series. Borschevsky's marker slayed a dragon. Gilmour's goal was like a dream. Each lives on.

    And yes, players with heart is absolutely what the Leafs need now, more than ever. That's not a Burke kind of player or a Carlyle kind of player. It's what any great team needs as much as anything else. It has always been thus in sport.

    Thank Bobby.

  4. Thanks Gerund're one of the "old" fans (like me!) who remember '78- and know the feeling!

  5. 1978 and 1993 are all I have had really - and I am now 48 years old. It's really kind of sad.

    I remember when Ballard brought Imlach back, mainly because I naively hoped that Punch's magic with the 60's Leafs and the Sabres would translate into greatness again. Sadly, Punch was brought back merely to do Ballard's dirty work. I realised years later that Punch was truly a management man, and that when management gave him liberty he did great things. But when management asked him to do dirty work, he was all too happy to it as well.

    His time had passed by the time Ballard brought him back. His experience with the Knox's showed what he could do if given the freedom and support to do what needed to be done. However, Harold Ballard was not that type of man.

  6. Good post Shaftesbury. You raise a sometimes overlooked point: Imlach built a great expansion team in Buffalo, a tremendous mix of old/young, speed/skill and grit. With a bit better goaltending, they may have won a Cup or two.

    By comparison, Bowman did not do as good a job as GM and sometimes coach there, after the great success he had behind the bench in Montreal.

    But yes, once back in Toronto, it's like Imlach was there to do Ballard's work, as in move out Sittler and those around him.