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 12, 2007
(TORONTO) - Memo to the members of Leafs Nation at Air Canada Centre last Saturday night: The Leafs heard you ... loudly and clearly. You inspired them to stay the course and mount a comeback that produced an old-fashioned barn-burner. What a game! What a result for the Leafs! The dream of landing one of the eight playoff spots in the Eastern Conference lives today for the Leafs, with the clock ticking at 13 regular-season games to go.
|(Graig Abel Photography) |
Just as the Leafs were pumped for this Battle of Ontario against those vaunted Senators, their fans were into it as well. It started 40 seconds into the game ... no score ... no scoreboard prompting ... not during a break in action but while the play was on ... just an indicator the atmosphere was electric. Something was on the line; the Leafs knew it and their fans sensed it. "Go, Leafs, Go!" they chanted. On countless times this night, even with the Leafs down 1-0, 2-0, 2-1 and 3-1, the chant arose, unprompted and with gusto.
And the hockey gods rewarded the Leafs for their relentless performance as they were able to send their fans home happy. A pair of goals by Darcy Tucker, including the winner in overtime, secured the two points the Leafs sought. Aside from Boyd Devereaux's seeing-eye screener past the brilliant Ray Emery, the other three Leafs goals were highlight-reel caliber. The five-man passing play on Tucker's first goal ... awesome and a long time since we'd seen it; the Hail Mary jump snare by Alexei Ponikarovsky who relayed to Mats Sundin for a super play finished with the soft hands of Nik Antropov for the tying goal; the OT capper after Pavel Kubina thwarted a possible goal at one end and went coastal on a give-and-go with Tucker.
Sundin's leadership - no quit and 11 shots on goal - Kyle Wellwood's niftiness in his first game back and a combined effort by all had head coach Paul Maurice admitting there were numerous candidates for three-star consideration on this night.
But the fans, well, they deserved a bow, too. The Leafs gave it to them.
"The crowd was into the game," said Tucker. "It was more like a playoff atmosphere out there like I've seen in the past here in Toronto. I think the people were thrilled the way we were playing. We played hard tonight and it gave them a chance to get out of their seats a bit. We hit, we moved the puck, we skated and we did a lot of things that we wanted to do every game this year. Tonight was a big game for us."
"To hear "Go, Leafs, Go!' when we went down two goals, that was one of the reasons that helped us," added Antropov. "It's like they were a sixth player for us you know what I'm saying? That was big ... BIG that they cheered for us."
In many ways, the playoffs have already started for the Leafs because they can ill afford to lose a game, let alone get into a losing streak. But even with the two points against Ottawa tying them for the final playoff position in the east, the Leafs were still on the outside-looking-in. However, they didn't fall further behind and, with seven of their final 13 games at home the Leafs will continue to need NOISE and plenty of it considering Tampa Bay, New Jersey, Buffalo, Carolina, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Montreal are the remaining visitors to Air Canada Centre between March 13 and April 7.
|(Graig Abel Photography) |
The Leafs' home record (14-15-5) is a factor for their current plight. The number of man-games lost this season is another. But, somehow, the Leafs have found a way to hang in there despite those aspects and through the daunting schedule in January and early February. So instead of being out of the race, it's still not too late as the club regains its wounded players, knowing the fans are still believing after the outpouring of support exhibited against Ottawa.
It reminded me of 1992 and how the fans responded to a column on Blue Jays outfielder Dave Winfield written by my good friend Jim Proudfoot in The Toronto Star. "Winfield Wants Noise" was the plea from big Dave - and the fans responded in kind through late August, September and right through Toronto's first World Series' win.
Just qualifying right now is a huge mandate for the Leafs given the closeness of the Eastern Conference race and the number of teams still in the hunt. No one knows that better than Maurice.
When asked after the win over the Senators whether he likes his team's chances, Maurice offered this response: "Yes, because of January ... three teams that have been below us in man games (lost) have been destroyed, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Chicago. But this team found a way to survive through depth, through great leadership and a goaltender fighting through some adversity and it's found a way. So you can't not believe in a team that won't quit. It's not pretty every night and to use it again, it's a dogfight and we've got the teeth marks. We've got teeth marks all over us, but we're still biting back."
And so are their fans.