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Maple Leafs embracing first back-to-back playoff berths since 2004

Young, skilled team focused on 'what we can do right now'

by Mike Zeisberger @zeisberger / Staff Writer

TORONTO -- Mitchell Marner doesn't remember much about the last time the Toronto Maple Leafs made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in back-to-back seasons.

He was 6.

Now he's 20 and for the first time since 2004, the Maple Leafs will be in the playoffs for a second straight season. They clinched a berth Thursday when the Ottawa Senators defeated the Florida Panthers.

What Marner, a forward who leads Toronto in scoring with 67 points (21 goals, 46 assists), does remember from growing up in the Toronto area is what it was like to watch his favorite team struggle.

"Obviously there were times where it stunk," Marner said this week. "I was pretty young the last time [the Maple Leafs] went to the playoffs in consecutive seasons. It's a long time ago.

"It's great we could do it again."


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In 2003 and 2004, the Maple Leafs were coached by the late Pat Quinn and featured players like Mats Sundin, Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle.

McCabe, now Florida's director of player personnel, was at Air Canada Centre on Wednesday. Though he was disappointed with the Panthers' 4-3 loss to the Maple Leafs, he wasn't surprised that a young, talented Maple Leafs team, sparked by a goal and an assist from Marner, played so well.

McCabe has a soft spot for Toronto, a place he once called his hockey home. At the same time, when asked if he ever thought it would take this long for the Maple Leafs to make consecutive playoff appearances, he replied: "Heck, no!

"You wouldn't ever think it was that long. But they've put a great young team together here and it's great for the city. They've definitely got a good thing going here and the city deserves it, man. It's good for the whole town.

Video: Toronto clinches a berth to the Stanley Cup Playoffs

"We had a special team there in the early 2000s and had a few good runs. Looking back, I think people now probably appreciate those teams more and realize how good they had it. Obviously Pat (Quinn) was a special person, a special coach and a great human being. Those times are some of my fondest as a hockey player."

Quinn's run as Toronto coach featured six consecutive playoff appearances (1998-99 through 2003-04). Toronto would go nine years without another appearance until qualifying under coach Randy Carlyle in 2013.

Much like Marner, forwards Connor Brown, 24, and Zach Hyman, 25, were Toronto-area kids who grew up cheering for the Maple Leafs at a time where playoff berths were rarities. As such, they are embracing being in the postseason for a second consecutive year.

"There were some tough years, for sure," Brown said. "It was a frustrating team to watch at times. But that's why this is such an enjoyable experience right now for the city.

"We're not satisfied though. There is still work to be done."

Hyman agrees the Maple Leafs, who are third in the Atlantic Division, seven points behind the second-place Tampa Bay Lightning, have unfinished business. They lost the Eastern Conference First Round to the Washington Capitals in six games last season.

Video: #ThirstForTheCup: Maple Leafs clinch playoff birth

"As a fan, you want to see your team do well in the regular season," Hyman said. "But that doesn't really matter until the postseason comes along.

"No one remembers the great regular-season teams. They remember the teams that win, so this is all a little bit of fluff until the real stuff starts. That's what you prepare for."

Hyman recalls how the 2004 playoffs came to an end for his beloved Maple Leafs.

"I was 11 or 12," he said. "Second round, Jeremy Roenick scores an overtime goal in Game 6 and the [Philadelphia] Flyers win the series 4-2."

Just moments before Roenick scored the series winner, Maple Leafs forward Darcy Tucker flattened Flyers defenseman Sami Kapanen with a crushing hit. An injured Kapanen crawled back to the bench, not wanting a whistle to interrupt play.

Maple Leafs forward Kasperi Kapanen, Sami's son, was 7 at the time.

"I've seen the video once and that was one too many times for me to have seen that," he said. "I haven't watched it again. You never want to see a player in that condition, especially when it's your dad.

"That was a long time ago. This is about this Maple Leafs team and what we can do right now.

"We have a young, skilled team with a lot of confidence. It should be fun."

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