Mike Ulmer has worked for seven news organizations including the National Post and, most recently, the Toronto Sun. Mike has written about the Leafs for 10 years and wrote Captains, a book about the club's greatest leaders.
|TEAM ||1 ||2 ||3 ||OT ||F |
|Canadiens ||1 ||4 ||0 || ||5 |
|Maple Leafs ||2 ||2 ||2 || ||6 |
(TORONTO) -- It is now up to others to decide if the Toronto Maple Leafs are playoff worthy.
What was determined last night, by a 6-5 count in the 683rd meeting of the Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens, is that the Habs are not.
If the New York Islanders defeat the New Jersey Devils in New Jersey on Sunday, they grab the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot. If not, the Leafs play Buffalo in the first round.
Saturday night, before the largest crowd of the year at Air Canada Centre, the Leafs picked themselves up after surrendering four straight goals. Did we mention it was in a contest they had to win in regulation?
"That was our season in 60 minutes," said Leafs coach Paul Maurice. "Start like a bat out of hell, do some strange things in the middle of it and then scratch and claw to get back in."
The evening had everything, sterling defence and lazy work. Offence by the gallon and goaltending as weak as watered down tea and then, decisively, absolute shut-down defensive play by the Maple Leafs.
Bates Batttaglia, Nik Antropov, Alex Steen, Carlo Colaiacovo, Bryan McCabe and Kyle Wellwood scored for the Maple Leafs. Michael Ryder delivered a natural hat trick for the Habs. Chris Higgins scored two more.
Things began delightfully for the Leafs who skunked the Canadiens coming out of the gate. By the time Battaglia slid a shot past Canadiens' goalie Cristobal Huet midway through the first, Toronto had outshot Montreal 16-1.
But for the first of many times, the Canadiens, while badly outplayed, took advantage of a Leafs miscue. Higgins beat Pavel Kubina to a loose puck and when Tomas Kaberle waved him by, the Canadiens' forward tied the game 1-1.
An Antropov deflection of a Mats Sundin pass pushed the Leafs into a 2-1 lead after one and when Alex Steen chipped a loose puck over Huet with just over a minute gone in the second, the Leafs, up 3-1, seemed good to go.
Then came the goal that would ripple through the game, a long shot that hit Toronto goalie Andrew Raycroft in the catching glove then fell over the goal line.
"My glove just exploded," Raycroft said. "I've got to have that one." Suddenly the Leafs lead was just 3-2. The game had gotten away and Maurice knew it. He began thinking about when to pull Raycroft. Ryder scored with a two man advantage and then added a wraparound marker. The Canadiens had the lead at 4-3 and Maurice had his chance.
"I thought about it (pulling Raycroft after the second (goal)," Maurice said. "It's just the nature of that kind of game, with that kind of emotion, it's hard for anyone to reel it back in. Had the third goal not been a five on three, he would have come after three (goals). It has nothing to do with Andrew, it was the way that game was going."
"It kind of caught me off guard a little bit," said Raycroft. "It was obviously the coaching move of the year. It was huge, but the goals were a five on three and a breakaway. It wasn't completely discouraging in the fact that I was completely horrible, I just wasn't good enough halfway through."
Higgins second of the game past back-up J-S Aubin pushed the Habs into a 5-3 lead but a goal late in the second from Colaiacovo through a haze of players, brought the Leafs to within one.
The Leafs were afforded another break when Steve Begin was assessed a four-minute minor for garroting Kyle Wellwood at the buzzer.
"We didn't think we were in bad shape after two," said Leafs captain Mats Sundin. "We knew we had a two-man advantage going into the third and in this league that feels like a 60 to 70 per cent conversion rate."
Sure enough, McCabe's rising wrister early in the game tied things at 5-5.
And then, with three minutes gone in the third, Tom Kaberle shot through the screen on a man advantage was deflected by Wellwood. The Leafs had the lead back at 6-5.
From that moment on, the Leafs were a different team. They chipped the puck out of their end and locked down the Habs in both ends of the rink. Boyd Devereaux, a veteran of a 2002 Stanley Cup run with Detroit took every third-turn ably plumbed the corners. Mats Sundin, the owner of one goal in 19 games, won 60 per cent of his draws.
Aubin faced only three shots in the third.
"They played a tremendous game," he said. "In the third, I had one or two shots I had to make a good save on."
"What Deveraux did was show his Stanley Cup experience in that game," said Maurice. "His forechecking, his routes, his positioning on the ice. There was no indecision in where he was supposed to be and that showed. He just willed the puck down the ice the one time."
That one time came with a dozen or so seconds left after Sundin had won his latest draw. Devereaux raced to the puck as it rimmed the boards and chipped it past the Montreal player.
"It's that simple in playoff hockey," Devereaux said. "It's knowing when to be aggressive and when to stop and take it in before you make a decision. Experience like the kind you get in a Stanley Cup run does so much for you and it's almost the first time I was able to draw on it and use it to my benefit."
And so the Leafs must wait. Should the Islanders better the Devils, there can be little argument with the outcome. The Leafs had the chance to eliminate the Islanders in New York bur fell 5-2 this week. Another Toronto loss in Manhattan led directly to the Islanders staying afloat.
Maurice is right about one thing. It has been a season of strong starts, stunning mid-term collapses and the kind of penalty trouble that proves fatal. It has also been a year of unexpected development, solidified defence and an ability to, as often as not, overcome poor play.
The Leafs finish 40-31-11. It has been a wild 82 games, none wilder than the last. With the 2006-2007 Leafs, you just never know.