-- The Toronto Maple Leafs needed to make a statement at Philadelphia on March 18 and they did by scoring a 3-2 win. Brian Leetch led the way with another big three-point night.
He registered his first two goals as a Leaf. His shot block preceded his shovel pass to Mats Sundin who wisely put himself onside before hitting the streaking Gary Roberts for what was a massive opening goal - shorthanded at that.
Ed Belfour turned in another stellar performance, chalking up his 29th win of the season and 430th of his career, five shy of Jacques Plante for number three on the all-time list.
And, oh yeah, this just in ... head coach Pat Quinn reached the 40-win plateau for the fifth time in his six seasons with the Leafs. It was the 10th time in his NHL career that he'd reached that total, tying him with Al Arbour for second on the NHL's all-time list, trailing only Scotty Bowman (with 17).
Quinn accomplished 40-or-more-win seasons twice with the Flyers and three times with the Canucks. Now, he's the first coach in Leafs history to do that in three consecutive seasons.
Yet, hardly anyone noticed.
Forty-eight hours later, the Leafs earned their 41st victory of the season, 5-2 over the Avalanche, further tightening things on two fronts with two weeks to go - the races for first place in the Eastern Conference and the Northeast Division. And what a finish it will be for the Leafs considering Tampa, Boston, Ottawa, Atlanta, Buffalo and Ottawa are on the horizon!
Like him or not, agree with his strategy or not, even Quinn's biggest detractors can't ignore his coaching success. He's got Olympic gold and has been selected to be head coach for Team Canada at this summer's World Cup of Hockey. He will one day be voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. He has more than 600 NHL regular-season wins and has taken his teams to the Stanley Cup final twice. His deepest desire, of course, is getting that very first Stanley Cup ring.
The Leafs are three points behind the Lightning for first in the Eastern Conference. While taking nothing away from the Lightning, one of the biggest differences between the teams is the number of man-games lost. The Leafs reached 271 man-games lost this season through the Colorado game; the Lightning, after losing in Boston earlier on Saturday, had only 23 man-games lost this season. That is not a misprint ... the number was indeed 23.
Head coach John Tortorella of the Lightning, rightfully, is a leading candidate for NHL Coach of the Year but based on the Leafs performance in the face of such adversity, Quinn should be a far more serious contender than many acknowledge. Some suggest this season is his finest as head coach.
"I don't know whether this is the best," Quinn says. "I've enjoyed it a lot but I've enjoyed coaching through most of my time and I've been very lucky. I've had good teams and good records and have taken a lot of enjoyment out of seeing guys succeed and get better.
"At the end of the day, I guess what measures success in some people's minds is only how many Stanley Cups you win. But there's lot of other ways to measure success in this business. Like I said I've very much enjoyed it and I, too, would like to have a Stanley Cup. That's what you work for every year and maybe this'll be the year."
If scoring 50 goals in a season is significant for an NHL player, then achieving 40 wins in a season is noteworthy in the NHL coaching profession.
"I think the 40-win level is a good benchmark for a team during the season," Quinn says. "When you hit 40, you know your team's pretty good. It's probably a good enough team to have a run in the playoffs and looking at it in a long-term basis it's a pretty good mark."
Quinn says getting there comes down to breaking the season down into segments and accumulating points through each one.
Here's how the Leafs have fared in four quarters to date:
|GP ||W ||L ||T ||OL ||PTS |
|First quarter - ||20 ||7 ||6 ||5 ||2 ||21 ||Man games lost 62 |
|Second quarter - ||21 ||15 ||2 ||3 ||1 ||34 ||Man games lost 63 |
|Third quarter - ||20 ||11 ||8 ||1 ||0 ||23 ||Man games lost 103 |
|Fourth quarter - ||15 ||8 ||7 ||0 ||0 ||16 ||Man games lost 43 |
|Totals - ||76 ||41 ||23 ||9 ||3 ||94 ||Man games lost 271 |
""Emphasis on the smaller parts help you get to the end of the road with a lot of points through that time,"" says Quinn. ""We've got a chance to get 100 again. We've had an off past couple of weeks because for a while there, I thought we might get 110 or something like that. We were on that sort of pace.""
Aside from finishing as high as they can, over the next six games, the Leafs must still fine tune their defensive assignments and straddle that line of playing with emotion yet staying out of the penalty box. They'll also have to hope for the best on the injury front because, if healthy, the Leafs have as good a chance as anyone in the playoffs.
Quinn says he likes his team a lot and he adds, attitude-wise, it's perhaps the strongest he's ever had. In a game where there are no guarantees Quinn notes that just getting to the Stanley Cup final is a terrific feat.
"To win it all would be the ultimate," Quinn says.
That's the target Quinn and his Leafs clearly have in mind.