May 20, 2004  
Volume 98, Issue 01  

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SPORTS

Another ‘What if?’ year for the Toronto Maple Leafs

Goy meets world
Aron Yeomanson

Sports Editor

Gazette File Photo
REMEMBER THESE GUYS? IT WAS 1967 — SO YOU PROBABLY DON’T. The 1967 Maple Leafs (pictured above as children) were a youthful bunch. Either that, or we found an old picture of a random peewee hockey team.

A quick snap of Jeremy Roenick’s wrist was all it took to shatter the hopes of an entire city. And within minutes, the latest elimination of the Toronto Maple Leafs commenced rumblings of the seemingly perennial question: what if?

In 1993, we asked “what if Kerry Fraser had called Gretzky for his blatant high stick on Doug Gilmour?” In 2002, it was “what if Alex Mogilny hadn’t blindly thrown the puck behind his own net in overtime?”

This year, any number of ‘what ifs’ have helped ease the collective pain of Leafs Nation. What if Antropov had passed to Nieuwendyk on a 2-on-1 in the dying seconds of game six? What if Brian Leetch hadn’t been pinching quite so much in overtime? What if Pat Quinn hadn’t worn a pink shirt to the rink in game five?

As the first of several tears splashed to the ground, I began to consider the different possibilities for the most satisfying of this year’s ‘what ifs.’ Several minutes and a soaking Leafs jersey later, it became apparent that this year was different. This year required a deeper look.

To me, the most crucial ‘what if?’ for the Leafs in their 2003-04 playoff run didn’t come in game six against Philadelphia. In fact, it didn’t come against Philadelphia at all, nor did it come in round one versus Ottawa.

It came on April 4, the last day of the regular season schedule. The evening before, the Leafs had trounced the Ottawa Senators 6-0 in their final game of the season. Toronto swelled with pride as an eager group of fans began planning parade routes and hanging flags emblazoned with the maple leaf from any possible surface. The grueling two month journey known as the Stanley Cup playoffs seemed a mere formality. Somewhere, Conn Smythe smiled.

Meanwhile, in East Rutherford, New Jersey, the Devils and Bruins were gearing up for a Sunday afternoon tilt with serious playoff implications. Die-hard neutral zone trap fans flocked to the arena to bear witness to the game which ultimately decided the Northeast and Atlantic Divisions, and in a way, the Leafs’ fate.

At the end of the day, the Bruins cemented first place in the Northeast Division and second in the conference with a 3-1 victory. With the loss, the Devils were relegated to sixth in the conference. But what if the Devils had won?

If the Devils defeated the Bruins, the Leafs would have won the Northeast Division and a first round playoff series against the seventh-seeded Montreal Canadiens. I am confident that Ed Belfour would have out-dueled Jose Theodore and the Leafs’ forecheck would have been too much for the smaller Habs to handle. Leafs in six.

The second round would have been the fourth installment of the Battle of Ontario, with the Leafs meeting the Senators (who would have defeated the Bruins in round one.) We all know from previous playoff experience what would have happened there.

In my estimation, that would have set up an Eastern Conference final between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers would have earned their spot in the final four with victories over the Devils and the Lightning.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. What’s the difference between this scenario and the one in which the Leafs lost in six games to the Flyers in round two? My answer is home ice advantage.

The series would have been the same home ice battle we saw in April, only this time the second-seeded Leafs would have had the edge over the sixth-seeded Flyers. It seems fair to predict a seven game victory for the Leafs.

To recap, that would have meant victories over the two most hated rivals of the Buds, revenge on the Flyers for that 2003 series and most importantly, the franchise’s first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 37 years.

If only the Devils could have pulled out a win on April 4, all of this could have been reality. They didn’t, leaving Leafs fans to wonder ‘what if?’ That question is a good pair with the other perennial Leafs fan phrase: “There’s always next year.”

 

 

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