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Leafs Season Not One To Forget

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs

By: Matthew Iaboni

May 5, 2004

(TORONTO) -- When Jeremy Roenick ended the Toronto Maple Leafs' season Tuesday it ended a stellar campaign for the Blue and White.

The team fell short, 10 wins to be exact, of raising Lord Stanley's Cup, but the team had many highlights during the regular season and in the shortened playoff run.

The Leafs struggled out of the gate to start the season, finishing the month of October one game over .500. But in late November, the Leafs took off on an incredible run of 16 straight games in which they recorded at least a point. It was a full month before the Leafs suffered another regulation loss when they dropped a 3-1 decision to the Islanders.

Mats Sundin delivered when needed throughout the entire season.
(Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

A few things that were evident early on were the late-game heroics of captain Mats Sundin and the superb goaltending that Ed Belfour provided on a nightly basis.

It seemed every night Sundin would score the game-winning goal or set up the winner or game-tying goal to rescue the Leafs in the third period.

He was "Captain Clutch" for the Leafs, tied for the NHL lead with 10 game-winning goals, second in the league with 36 third-period points. The Leafs' points streak was in jeopardy on Boxing Day at MSG when Mats took over. The Rangers came back to tie the game at 5 early in the third, but it was Sundin who fought off Vladimir Malakhov to beat Jussi Markkanen five-hole to score the overtime winner.

Sundin wasn't a late game hero just this past season though. Since the beginning of the 2000-01 campaign he leads the NHL with 33 game-winning goals and is now the Leafs all-time leader in game winners.

In his second season with the Blue and White, Belfour again marveled fans and media alike with his strong positional play, great puck handling skills and his ability to shutout the opposition. Meanwhile, he's doing all this at the age of 39.

Belfour was splendid in his ability to keep the Leafs in games and allow the team to score timely goals. He finished off his second year in a Leafs' uniform by registering a career-high 10 shutouts, which was second in the NHL.

Aside from Sundin and Belfour the Leafs received standout contributions from the blueline and in particular Bryan McCabe. Coming off a poor campaign by his own estimation McCabe blossomed into the club's number one defenceman. He averaged 25:43 minutes per game, recorded 16 goals, which tied him for third among defenceman, and his 53 points tied him for fourth among defenceman. He became the reliable defender that Pat Quinn relied on late in games and McCabe responded to the extra ice time and added pressure with open arms.

Gary Roberts and Tom Fitzgerald made history in 2004.

As the March trade deadline approached, first year general manager John Ferguson acquired future Hall of Fame defenceman Brian Leetch from the Rangers. From his first day with the Leafs, Leetch teamed with McCabe to form a dynamic pairing that Quinn looked to play significant minutes both on a regular shift and on special teams.

Ferguson's trade-deadline moves included another future Hall of Famer in Ron Francis from the Carolina Hurricanes. Chad Kilger was claimed off waivers from Montreal and Calle Johansson came out of retirement to sign as a free agent.

We've outlined some of the strong performers for the Leafs but here's a look at our choices for the Leafs award winners:

MVP: Ed Belfour and Mats Sundin. Both were the reason the Leafs finished where they did -- within a point of first place in the Northeast Division and with the third highest points total in the Eastern Conference, despite numerous injuries.

Top Defenceman: Bryan McCabe. Grew into his own and showed he can be a Norris Trophy winner in the future. Runner up: Ken Klee. Played well at both ends of the ice and formed a solid pairing with Tomas Kaberle.

Top Forward: Sundin. Late game heroics saved the Leafs many nights. Runner up: Joe Nieuwendyk gets honourable mention for stepping in as the second line centre and scoring big goals with his great wrist shot. He also provided additional leadership and assisted in the development of Alexei Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov.

Biggest Surprise: Matt Stajan. A longshot, he made the team and scored 14 goals showing great potential. Runner up: Ponikarovsky. Came into his own on the SkyLine.

Special Teams Player: McCabe. Played almost the full power play and penalty kill for the majority of the season and scored many goals on his wicked slapper from the point. Runner up: Robert Reichel. Was an effective penalty killer both five-on-four and five-on-three.

Unsung Hero: Tom Fitzgerald. Respected NHL veteran played on the fourth line most of the year and never complained about his ice time. Runner up: Reichel. Accepted a lesser scoring role for the better of the team and showed he could play well in his own end.

Biggest Win: The Leafs' 6-0 win over Ottawa the last game of the regular season to give the Leafs home-ice advantage for the first round which they needed to knock off the Senators in seven. Runner up: The Leafs' 6-5 come-from-behind win in Buffalo in March. The Leafs rallied to score three third-period goals to send game to overtime where Tomas Kaberle ends it on the night where Alexander Mogilny achieved his 1,000th NHL point.

Memorable Occasion: On January 13, teammates Fitzgerald and Gary Roberts become the first players in NHL history to play in their 1,000th NHL game in the same game. Fitzgerald even scored the game's final goal in a 4-1 Leafs win.

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