Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Fallen Leaves

In a world where hard work is rewarded with results, the Maple Leafs would be preparing for Game 7 right now. However, it would appear that the world of Stanley Cup playoffs hard work while a worthwhile talent to have, doesn’t always translate into success. It was a frantic third period that the Leafs put together, having trailed the Flyers by two goals through two periods the Leafs started to roll in the second period and made their last stand in the last twenty minutes.

Led by their captain Mats Sundin the Leafs flew out of the gate, returning for one final burst of twenty minutes of the crashing style that earned them a measure of respect in this series. They were crashing the net, hitting the corners and forcing turnovers, as time ticked away they picked up one and then a second goal, nearly putting the winner away with under one minute of play to go.

Sundin became a force in the third period, gaining an assist on the first Leaf goal by Karl Pilar and then scoring one of his own to give the Leaf Nation hope. The hardest working guy in the series Tie Domi had a chance to put the game away with less than a minute to go, only to have his shot robbed by Robert Esche who snared the puck destined for the back of the Flyer net. Esche was stellar in the third period as the Leafs outshot the Flyers 11-3 and just controlled the play through the third.

As overtime began the Flyers came out in wave after wave, the Leafs withstood a rather hectic couple of minutes before regaining the momentum for themselves, the next six minutes were basically end to end as each team took the puck deep into the others end, near misses and miraculous defensive plays to be seen on highlight reels. The Leafs found three solid chances, only to have the puck go wide, get blocked or have Esche make the save. As the period progressed you couldn’t help but think that destiny was on the side of the blue and white, despite the Flyers edge in shots at 7-3. The Leafs controlled the play in OT for the bulk of the 7 minutes, but then as quickly as they had moved the puck into the Philly end it was going back down the ice on the stick of Jeremy Roenick. With a two on one heading in the direction of Ed Belfour, Roenick wheeled down the right wing blasting a shot over the shoulder of Belfour, Flyers 3, Leafs 2, game over, series over, season over.

Philadelphia which at some times looked dominant in this series and at others fragile goes on to meet the Tampa Bay Lightning, a well rested bunch of young legs ready to continue their unbelievable run. Philly will have a little time to recuperate, tend to their injuries and work out a game plan to slow the high flying Bolts. Getting JR back on his game should go a long way to putting some points on the board, Roenick was held goal less in the series until this much needed Game 6. He somehow found the room to work and made the best use of it. If he can reprise his efforts against Tampa then Philadelphia may just have a chance to meet Stanley in a couple of weeks.

For Toronto it’s another bitter disappointment, Pat Quinn had gone out on a bit of limb in assembling this team, bringing in a higher amount of wily old veterans than many other teams might go for in the playoffs. Injuries played a role in the sluggish play of the Leafs in this series. Mats Sundin missed a few key games; Owen Nolan was out for the entire playoffs. Quinn tinkered with his lineup moving players in and out to try and find a successful combination. But in the end, it was just a break that determined the winner, a bounce of a post or wide of an empty net denying the Leafs a chance to live. Then there was a rocket of a shot from Jeremy Roenick, sending the Flyers forward.

It can be a cruel game sometimes, for the Leafs no night will be crueller than Tuesday night was, they were so close and were helpless in the end to stop the Flyers. When the Toronto media begin their dissection of the Leafs many will point back to Game six, but in reality this was possibly their best game or at least the best twenty minutes they have put together. At times like these people discuss the character building done and how it bodes well for next year, For the Leafs this was next year, changes will come to the Blue and White, grey hairs will retire or be given a message, trades will happen and a new dynamic will begin to evolve.

As the season ends the Leafs find themselves in a familiar spot, close but not close enough to consider the season a success. The hot and cold nature of this team in the playoffs and through the regular season an indication that they're still missing an ingredient or two to make the final run, the only question is has time run out for this group and its coach.

For Pat Quinn, his players and their fans this was the season that should have been, no amount of rationalizing will be enough to take the sting out this loss. The cry you hear after a season comes to an end is wait til next year, in Toronto the cry will be “it should have been this year”.

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