Simply No Time For The Leafs To Ease Up
Tuesday, 01.13.2004 / 8:20 PM ET / News
Toronto Maple Leafs
|John Iaboni has been covering the Maple Leafs and the NHL for nearly 30 years. For the last 12, he has been the managing editor of the team's game day magazine and now you can share his exclusive inside access.|
Here we are almost two weeks into the new calendar year and we've already seen the development of some mighty interesting situations on the Leafs front. Let's look at a few of them.
WHY FINISHING FIRST IN THE NORTHEAST IS VITAL
A few hours after Garth Snow of the New York Islanders was yanked after allowing three goals on seven shots against the New York Rangers, the big showdown at Air Canada Centre pitted Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils against Ed Belfour and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It's been a long time since the Leafs uttered the word "frustration" in a post-game but that word was prevalent among the Leafs after Brodeur and the Devils stymied them, 1-0. Belfour? Terrific and had no chance on Brian Gionta's goal.
Brodeur? Well, par for the course for him too, only he kept the Leafs off the scoresheet confounding them at the back end while his teammates bottled up the middle and smothered the Leafs. Of course, the Leafs did little to crack the Devils system but let's face it, New Jersey isn't the defending Stanley Cup champion for nothing. They make a habit out of driving opponents nuts playing like they did against the Leafs.
Even after gaining points in a club record 16 consecutive games, the Leafs are in for a real battle with the Ottawa Senators for first place in the Northeast Division. If the season had ended last Saturday, the Leafs would have drawn the Islanders while the Senators would have faced the Devils in the first round of the playoffs.
Thanks to the rule whereby first-place finishers in each division grab the top seeds, the "weak" Southeast Division winner gets the third seed while, once again, the "superior" second-place teams in the Atlantic and Northeast divisions appear headed for the fourth and fifth seeds. That means one of those stronger teams gets eliminated in Round 1.
Last Saturday night's loss to the Devils, the defeat two nights before that to Ottawa, plus the 7-1 loss to the Flyers on November 1 illustrate just how difficult those teams are when they're on their game. And, yeah, I know the Leafs have lost twice in Long Island this season and they don't exactly like each other either.
But the Leafs have got to do whatever they can to play at the No. 1 standard they established in the first half because if I'm them, I'd rather take my chances starting the playoffs against a lower seed, say the Islanders and Garth Snow rather than the Devils and Brodeur.
MILSTONE KUDOS FOR TWO QUALITY VETS
NHL history is on the horizon when Tom Fitzgerald and Gary Roberts become the first teammates to play in their 1,000th NHL regular-season contest in the same game - on January 13 against the Calgary Flames.
Not only have Fitzgerald and Roberts proven to fit right in with the long list of solid free-agent signings by the Leafs but they're respected leaders who give everything they've got.
"They're both really terrific veterans and contribute a lot along the way, they're still strong players and to have them hit the 1,000 together on the same night is unusual," says Leafs head coach Pat Quinn. "They're two proud guys and it'll be a nice night for them. I hope we can play well around them so that it's something else that they can remember as far as that special night.
"They both have a real strong work ethic. They work in practice. They look after themselves. They challenge themselves to be better all the time. Neither one is what you would call the really highly gifted guys in the sense of handling the puck and that sort of thing but boy they play the game with a lot of heart and their attitude is one of their strengths, both of them."
And while on the subject of honours, Quinn deserves mention, too, for picking up a head coaching assignment at the NHL All-Star Game for the third time in five seasons. That comes because Quinn's constantly had the Leafs at the top of the heap. Despite his detractors, Quinn's results speak for themselves. He wouldn't have been picked to coach Canada at the 2002 Olympics if he didn't know what he was doing and it's my opinion he deserves to coach Canada again at this summer's World Cup.
DON'T YOU JUST LOVE THE TORONTO-OTTAWA RIVALRY?
Daniel Alfredsson says he was having some fun in mocking his friend Mats Sundin after breaking his stick during the Sens' 7-1 thrashing of the Leafs. The captain of the Senators also admitted his timing was poor by doing so when he did, but added he thought Sundin shouldn't have been suspended for throwing his broken stick into the stands.
Anyway, the Alfredsson incident sparked an outcry as the Leafs and many of their fans were incensed by the "funny" business. Me? I think it's great! I just look at it as the latest of the growing list of incidents that contribute to this mutual dislike.
They'll face each other four more times this season - with January 31 already circled on the calendar for the return engagement at Air Canada Centre. They'll even end the season against each other, perhaps in a game that could mean first place in the Northeast.
They might even renew their postseason "hate-on" for one another. To all this, I say, bring it on. There's nothing like hockey with passion and the Battle of Ontario always has plenty of that! "