Another ‘What if?’ year
for the Toronto Maple Leafs
Goy meets world
Gazette File Photo
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
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
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.”