John Iaboni has been covering the Maple Leafs and hockey for over 30 years. He now is the editor of Leafs Game Day, the official program of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
March 22, 2006
(TORONTO) -- Forty-seven years ago on this date the Toronto Maple Leafs capped a stunning miracle finish to nip the New York Rangers by one point for the final playoff spot in the National Hockey League.
|Darcy Tucker hopes to do a lot of celebrating after this weekend. |
It was on March 22, 1959 - the concluding night of the 1958-59 NHL season - that Leafs Nation was praying for a Toronto win at Detroit Olympia while hoping for a loss by the Rangers to Montreal at Madison Square Garden.
When it worked out exactly that way, the Leafs and their supporters celebrated one of the greatest comebacks in pro sports history while the Rangers and their fans lamented one of the all-time most devastating collapses.
Think about how it occurred: Over the final 10 days of the season, the Rangers dropped six of seven, including the first five of that stretch. Meanwhile over the same period the Leafs lost 6-2 to the Canadiens on March 11 then won their remaining five games - including the curtain-closer at Detroit even after falling behind 3-0 to the Red Wings.
The Leafs found themselves seven points back of the Rangers with five games to go when they squared off in a pivotal home-and-home series on March 14 and 15. When Toronto won 5-0 at home and 6-5 in The Big Apple, the gap was only three with three games to play. After New York lost 5-3 to Boston on March 18 and the Leafs beat the Canadiens 6-3 at Montreal the following night, the Rangers' lead was but a thread.
The Rangers preserved that precarious margin and kept themselves in the driver's seat with a 5-2 win at Detroit on the next-to-last night but the Leafs stayed alive with a 5-1 triumph over Chicago at Maple Leaf Gardens.
Leafs fans today who are old enough recall the angst and scoreboard interest in listening to Foster Hewitt on radio during the dramatic final night of the '58-59 regular season. Final scores: Montreal 4, New York 2; Toronto 6, Detroit 4. On Broadway, there was lots of finger pointing for the tidal wave the Rangers were unable to control down the stretch. In Toronto, there was glee as the Leafs qualified for the playoffs for the first time in three seasons, defying the odds with an improbable resurrection given the ground they had to make up in mere days.
They even had some heroics left with their first-round seven-game playoff upset of the second-place Bruins despite losing the first two games in Boston. The Canadiens, however, finally brought the upstart Leafs back to earth, winning the 1959 Stanley Cup final in five games.
It was a different time, of course: Six teams in the NHL, not 30; one team for the Leafs to catch and only one behind whereas the battle for the last postseason berth at this juncture sees Atlanta (by four points) and Montreal (by three)
in front of Toronto with the Panthers, Islanders and Bruins within striking distance of the Leafs.
But as dark as things appeared a few days ago for the 2005-06 edition of the Maple Leafs, now authoring a comeback doesn't seem out of the question. They've done it before in club history...'58-59 proved an even bleaker picture than any points differential they've stared at so far in '05-06.
|Nik Antropov and the Leafs have two big games against Montreal this week. |
Heck, the 1942 Stanley Cup-winning Leafs still remain the first - and only - pro franchise to be down 3-0 in games and storm back to claim that loop's overall championship final. And before all you Red Sox fans out there remind me of Boston's win over the Yankees under a similar games deficit in 2004, remember that came in the American League Championship Series, a stepping-stone to the World Series, baseball's really big final.
Just as the Leafs 47 years ago won that two-game set against the Rangers, the Leafs have a chance to do the same against the Canadiens in doubleheader action over three nights starting tomorrow at Montreal's Bell Centre.
Every game against the Canadiens this season has been a nail-biter. The Leafs won the first two meetings at Montreal - 3-2 on October 15 and 5-4 in overtime on November 12. The squads have split their four games at Air Canada Centre - the Canadiens winning 5-4 on October 8 and 4-3 in overtime on January 28 while the Leafs prevailed 4-3 in overtime on November 26 and 5-3 on March 7. Six games, five decided by one goal, the other by two, three games requiring OT.
Excitement? Plenty of it and the bandwagon is now picking up passengers who'd abandoned the Leafs in recent times. What the Leafs need now though is to keep making a statement. They had to put themselves into a situation where the showdowns in Montreal really mattered. Back-to-back wins over Pittsburgh and Carolina did just that.
Beyond Montreal, a date looms in New Jersey on Sunday, with the Devils hardly home and cooled out, sitting only six points up on the Leafs.
Yes, this is a big week for the Leafs, a wonderful time to keep scoreboard watching and running wild with emotion. And it now continues with the Leafs-Habs - both outsiders in the playoff picture right now, yet both so close they can taste it and that means both desperately need wins.
We can hardly wait for it all to unfold.