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Sharks facing long but not impossible odds

San Jose hopes to join 1942 Maple Leafs as only teams to overcome 3-1 deficit in Cup Final

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist

PITTSBURGH -- It is not an inescapable crater in which the San Jose Sharks find themselves heading into Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final.

That it has been unsuccessfully escaped 96.9 percent of the time since 1939 simply means, if you're a glass-half-full Sharks fan, there's a 3.1 percent chance of your team making a comeback for the ages.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, holding a 3-1 series lead, can win the Stanley Cup on home ice Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

The odds, historically speaking, are massively in the Penguins' favor. Pittsburgh has three opportunities, two of them at Consol Energy Center, to win their fourth championship in franchise history.

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A team has held a 3-1 series lead 32 times since the Stanley Cup Final became a best-of-seven affair in 1939. Thirty-one times, that team has won the NHL championship.

The Toronto Maple Leafs fashioned a magical rally in 1942, not only coming back from a 3-1 deficit against the Detroit Red Wings, but a 3-0 hole to win their second Stanley Cup.

The Maple Leafs battled injuries for much of the 1941-42 season; four of their best players -- Don Metz, Wally Stanowski, Syl Apps and Nick Metz -- were sidelined for a combined 53 games, others on the roster playing hurt.

Still, Toronto cobbled together a bit of a run near season's end to finish second in the 48-game schedule with 57 points, three back of the New York Rangers and one ahead of the Boston Bruins.

It was a seven-team, one-division League, six making the playoffs. Only the woeful Brooklyn Americans, a rebranding of the New York Americans, missed the playoffs, folding quietly from the NHL as they did.

The Rangers were the Maple Leafs' opponent in the semifinal round, a curious matchup between the first- and second-place teams, respectively. Toronto would win a fierce defensive struggle, goaltenders Turk Broda of the Maple Leafs and Sugar Jim Henry of the Rangers dueling for six games before Toronto put down New York to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.        

Coach Hap Day's Maple Leafs then played the Red Wings, a fifth-place regular-season also-ran that knocked off the Montreal Canadiens, then the Boston Bruins, to advance.         


In his 1994 book "The Leafs," author Jack Batten recounts the innovative strategy Detroit coach Jack Adams introduced to the NHL that season, a style of play that thrives to this today: Dump and chase.

"Shoot the puck into the other team's end and forecheck like crazy," Batten wrote of Adams' method. "The system is so old that today it's hard to conceive that someone had to invent it. But that seems to have been Jack Adams, and the simple new system had the Leafs buffaloed in the first three games of the final."

Toronto owner Conn Smythe would have no part of such a strategy. Years later, Day recalled: "Smythe didn't like any system that involved giving the puck away."

So when the Maple Leafs unsuccessfully tried to carry the puck into Detroit ice and make plays from there, the Red Wings dumped, chased, and spanked Toronto 3-2 and 4-2 at Maple Leaf Gardens and 5-2 in Game 3 at the Detroit Olympia. The Stanley Cup was within arm's length of the Red Wings, 60 minutes and one victory away.

And then Smythe saw the light. Like a southpaw boxer who in mid-bout starts leading with his right, Smythe gave Day permission to adopt the Red Wings' style of play. And more than that.

"When Detroit fired the puck into our end from center, we'd simply fire it straight back out, which also was a new wrinkle," recalled defenseman Bob Goldham, a 19-year-old rookie who'd been called up from the minors late in the season.

Day tweaked his lineup, replacing a few veterans with speedy youngsters.

Down 3-0 and facing elimination, Day stood in front of his players shortly before the faceoff and read them a letter written by a 14-year-old girl in Detroit who was devastated by the lackluster play of her Maple Leafs.

"I never saw such tension in the dressing room," Day would say.

Three decades later, Apps told Batten that being swept out of the Stanley Cup Final simply couldn't happen.

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"I remember sitting in the dressing room, waiting for the fourth game to start," Apps said. "The only thing on our minds was, 'We can't go back to Toronto if we lose this game, too.' We couldn't lose four straight and face the people back home."

Toronto won 4-3, Red Wings coach Adams blowing a gasket postgame, throwing punches at referee Mel Harwood on the ice then chasing him into the officials' room to argue a couple of penalties.

NHL president Frank Calder, who needed a police escort out of the Olympia, suspended Adams for it, Red Wings captain Ebbie Goodfellow pressed into emergency coaching duties.

The Maple Leafs returned home and bombed Detroit 9-3, Don Metz scoring three goals and assisting on two more.

Back to Detroit for Game 6; Broda blanked the home team 3-0, sending the series back to Toronto for the sudden-death finale.

Down 1-0 after 40 minutes, a nervous Smythe visited his team's dressing room. The late Maple Leafs boss recalled in his autobiography how forward Sweeney Schriner told him, 'What are you worried about, Boss? We'll get you some goals.' "

It was Schriner who would tie the game 6:46 into the third period, Pete Langelle scoring Toronto's second and Schriner icing the cake at 16:13, completing their remarkable, even miraculous rally.

In their first Stanley Cup Final in franchise history, the San Jose Sharks don't need three victories. They need one on Thursday. Then another back home on Sunday. Then one more in Pittsburgh next Wednesday.

The Sharks might even take a morsel of comfort knowing there has been precedent for such a stunning comeback, the Maple Leafs having demonstrated seven decades ago that, against all odds, anything in hockey is possible.

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