by John Iaboni
On a night that belonged to Mats Sundin, it was appropriate that the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs scored the winning goal in overtime against the Washington Capitals.
It fit the script perfectly: The pre-game ceremony honouring his recent National Hockey League milestones -- 1,000 regular-season points and 1,000 regular-season games -- capped by the decisive scoring play.
Praising Sundin was the nice part of Pat Quinn's post-game media huddle. But the general manager and head coach of the Leafs wasn't about to sugarcoat surrendering another two-goal lead. Quinn, as is his way, presented his thoughts wisely and used the word "smart" as in using one's head in protecting the upper hand.
| Bryan McCabe has to bring in the playoffs. |
Graig Abel Photography
Quinn knows that with a playoff date likely looming against Ken Hitchcock and the Philadelphia Flyers, falling asleep at the switch will spell disaster against such formidable foes. As good as the Leafs are in regular-season overtime, playing with fire could, well, backfire.
Remember, last season the Leafs and the Carolina Hurricanes went to three overtime games in the Eastern Conference Championship -- and the Hurricanes won all three. The only playoff game the Leafs won in extra time last spring was against Ottawa, courtesy of Gary Roberts and that was in triple OT!
So there's no guarantee that a solid overtime record playing four-on-four in the regular season will translate into automatic wins playing five-on-five in the playoffs. If the club's industriousness places them ahead in post-season games, the Leafs had better discover a way to hold on to what they've got. That's something they haven't been able to achieve in the past few weeks.
"As it turns out, we blew another two-goal lead, which we've been doing consistently," Quinn said after defeating Washington.
Let's see, they've worked on coming to grips with their discipline. Now they've got protecting leads in mind with three games to go before, as Eddie Murphy says, "it's showtime!"
Aside from these areas, here are some other keys for the Leafs in the 2003 playoffs: THE GOALTENDING OF ED BELFOUR:
The Eagles has been the MVP for the Leafs this season. If Ed Belfour gets into the zone he delivered from mid-November to early February, the Leafs are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. BEST PLAYERS HAVE TO BE THEIR BEST:
Harry Neale notes how in most wins, the cream rises to the top. That means that Belfour, Mats Sundin, Alexander Mogilny, Owen Nolan, Gary Roberts, Tomas Kaberle, Bryan McCabe, Robert Svehla and others will have to be stars consistently. In McCabe's case, he comes off a disappointing season. If he regains the form he showed throughout last season, including the playoffs, he will be a huge plus. If not, it could cost the Leafs. SUPPORTING CAST HAS TO CHIP IN, TOO:
All championship teams win with the entire roster doing whatever it takes for the cause. Nik Antropov made massive strides this season. Robert Reichel set up some key goals. Jonas Hoglund helped kill penalties and scored some big markers. Tie Domi bulked up his offensive statistics. Darcy Tucker, struggles aside, can provide some offence but he'll have to keep his emotions in check. EVERYONE MAKE A COMMITMENT TO DEFENCE:
Nothing fancy here. Everyone digs in, covers up, takes care of play in the defensive zone and capitalizes on the transition game. That way the Leafs defence isn't pressured and left to fend on its own and Leafs goaltenders don't face an overabundance of shots. The strategy got the Leafs beyond the first round in each of the past four playoffs and advanced them to the Stanley Cup semi-finals twice in that span. SHOW RESOLVE IN THE WAKE OF INJURIES:
They found a way to survive last spring and have had plenty of practice during the stretch drive. Injuries will happen. Teams with depth prevail. The longer the Leafs play, the better the chances Doug Gilmour, Glen Wesley, Phil Housley will get an opportunity to help in the cup aspirations. LADY LUCK GETS ON THEIR SIDE:
Mike Palmateer once told me he'd rather be lucky than good. My response was always "when you're good, you're lucky." Be it for injuries or freak bounces, it's my contention teams that work the hardest will be rewarded by Lady Luck. MAKING ALL THE RIGHT MOVES:
Last year, Quinn and Hitchcock (and Wayne Fleming, Hitchcock's assistant with the Flyers) worked together to bring Canada gold at the Olympics. These guys respect each other and you can rest assured that'll mean little as they go about trying to devise the winning formula. Last spring, Quinn won a head-to-head seven-game battle with another of his Olympic associate coaches, Jacques Martin of the Ottawa Senators. Watching the work behind the benches at this time of year is always intriguing.
The Eastern Conference is anyone's for the taking. The Leafs know that. But they're also smart enough to realize their playoff form isn't quite there yet. It had better be there starting next week because this is an opportunity they don't want to blow.