What the 2010-11 Leafs can learn from the 1992-93 Leafs
MEMO TO ALL MAGNIFICENT LEAF BASTARDS:
This is it. There's no more time for sloppy starts or nervous breakdowns in the third. There's no more room for lost games that you should have won, could have won, would have won if only the universe were more cooperative.
The playoffs are still the target, right? That's what team officials insist. So here's the deal: Your fate will crystallize over the next six weeks. You are the makers of your own destiny.
Starting tomorrow at Madison Square Garden and ending February 27 in Atlanta, you play 18 of 19 games against Eastern teams, including 10 against squads now perched directly above you in the standings.
The good news: The New Year has ushered in success. A 5-2-1 record means you have corralled 11 of 16 possible points in 2011 and have four games in hand on 8th place Atlanta. The bad news: You remain 12 points on the wrong side of the post-season line and venture into New York on the weakness of two dreadful efforts against Phoenix and Calgary.
But with your indulgence, I'd like to talk about 1992-1993 Leafs.
I know, right? Who cares? Most of you were dragging toy trucks through sandboxes when that Leafs team ignited five-alarm passions with thrilling playoff victories over Detroit, St. Louis and nearly Los Angeles (sigh).
But while it was a fantastic time to be a Leaf fan, believe it or not, the spring we will never forget only came after a winter of discontent.
After a Boxing Day loss, the 92-93 Leafs were playing .456 hockey – worse than your current .466 winning percentage. After 44 games, they were 20-17-7, which means they only had two more wins than you do right now after the same number of games.
That team was in a dogfight for a playoff spot with St. Louis. Stop me if any of this sounds familiar: There were also stories about underperforming forwards and error-prone defenders. There were nagging doubts about special teams and goals against.
Then without warning, that team changed the narrative. The 92-93 Leafs team rewrote their own biography.
Over the last 40 games, they went 24-12-4. This meteoric rise included two 3-game, one 4-game and one 5-game winning streaks. They went from having "great potential" to just plain "great."
So what happened? Well, for starters, Cliff Fletcher – who had previously obtained Doug Gilmour in one of the most lopsided trades in NHL history – realized there was still an important piece missing from his puzzle. So on February 2, he traded a veteran goalie with a Stanley Cup pedigree (Grant Fuhr) to Buffalo for a big forward with soft hands (Dave Andreychuk).
Can a similar trade happen this season? It's within the realm of possibility.
Now, look. I don't want to sound delusional or create ridiculous expectations. But there are parallels between that team and your team. So in advance of this critical stretch in the schedule – this make-or-break period – here are Five Valuable Lessons To Be Learned From The 1992-93 Leafs:
We tend to remember the flashbulb memory heroics of Doug Gilmour or Wendel Clark or Felix Potvin. But what we often forget is the little things other players started doing consistently after Christmas: Peter Zezel's masterful work on draws. Mark Osborne killing penalties. Bill Berg getting under the skin of opponents like a toxic microbe. Ken Baumgartner answering the fisticuffs bell without incurring foolish penalties.
That Leafs team was defined by selfless plays, not selfish players. That team was an assembly line in which everybody knew his defined role and nobody tried to do too much. It was all about the greater good. It was all about building something.
In mid-January, after a 5-3 loss to Chicago, coach Pat Burns went ballistic. "We were out-worked, out-hit, out-hustled, outshot and outscored," he told reporters. "All in our own building. That's disgraceful. I was disappointed in their pride. I thought there was more pride than that on this team."
Contrast those statements with many of the ho-hum shrugs and feeble excuses that make up the catalogue of 2010-2011 post-game sound bites. And now consider this: After that game, the Leafs only lost three more times at home during the regular season. They hated to lose and suddenly it showed.
Before Christmas, that Leafs team was surrendering a shocking number of goals. They were giving away the puck. They were losing one-on-one battles. But then defencemen – including Bob Rouse, Sylvain Lefebvre, Jamie Macoun, Dave Ellett and Dmitri Mironov – started playing cohesively as a unit.
They started delivering punishing hits. They started clearing out their net. They started making life miserable for opposition forwards. They started using their size and toughness instead of trying to be something they were not. They found a way to match their on-ice play to their on-paper promise.
Hockey has become a business. For too many players (on all teams), it is simply a job. But one thing that Leafs team did extraordinarily well was stay hyper-aware of their fans at all times. This wasn't disingenuous posturing. This wasn't a cynical ploy. No, throughout the second half of the season, the subtext of what many players said during post-game interviews contained some element of fan awareness.
They were in this for themselves, of course, but they were also in this for us.
When he was honoured during the last regular season game, Gilmour clutched a microphone, stood at center ice and promised: "We're going to do something for you guys yet."
Starting in January, the 92-93 Leafs played every shift like it was their last shift. They went into corners with fearless abandon. They stormed the opposition net. The D defended, the forwards buried their chances.
By early February, you rarely heard a player say, "We were tired" or "We just didn't have it tonight." They put pressure on themselves to win every game. No excuses. They were visibly enraged when the other team jumped ahead. They paced before games and blocked out distractions. And they never lost sight of the proverbial prize, which at first was a spot in the playoffs, and then, success in the playoffs.
Anything less was unacceptable.
PHOTO: COLIN MCCONNELL/TORONTO STAR