WE CLINCHED! We’re back baby! I was at Great wolf Lodge on Saturday night and while my kids went water sliding I went to room and had my emotions shoot up and down the waterslide that is my life as a diehard leaf fan. When it was over and we had made it a sense of calm and “Peace and Quiet” came over me. Often in times like these Nostalgia takes over, I reflect back on teams gone by and memories they come flooding back. This time Nostalgia took me back to 2002. The Leafs last great playoff run…
The 01/02 season began with a certain degree of optimism, I think it was safe to say that at the start of the year, the fan base fully expected to make the playoffs, and “see what happens form there” We had made the playoffs the year before, beating the Senators in a sweep but losing to NJ the following round.
The 2001/02 team featured a fine mix of talent and toughness and the excellent goal keeping of Curtis Joseph ‘Cujo’. It was heavily veteran team managed, lead and coached by the Big Irishman, the great Pat Quinn. Probably the best coach to never win a Stanley Cup. The season was by all accounts a success. Mats Sundin, Alex Mogilny, Gary Roberts, Shayne Corson, Darcy Tucker, Tie Domi, Tomas Kaberle, Bryan McCabe combined their efforts to finish the season with 2nd most points in the Eastern Conference an even 100. Unfortunately, the 1st place team, The Boston Bruins, were in their division so due to a quirky rule the Leafs were the 4th seed in the playoffs and had to play and extremely tuff NYI team. This was one of the most vicious series the Leafs had been involved in since the 80s’. The fights, the hits, some clean, some… not so much, were non-stop. The islanders Steve Webb was a chief punk in this series, late hit, after late hit and never backing it up with dropped gloves, the leafs finally had enough, And showed this Islander team what happens when you piss off tough old school hockey players.
The teams developed a hatred for one another almost instantly.
The Leafs got off to a flying start winning games 1 and 2 at home. We were on our way to four game sweep before disaster struck. The Leafs got smoked 6-1 on Long Island but that wasn’t the real disaster. Game 3 would be the last game of the series for the great Mats Sundin. Not just hurt but injured. A broken wrist. They tried to win one for the captain, the Leafs played a strong game 4 but lost that too. It was all tied up headed back to T.O. The leafs were trying to find a way to win without their most skilled player. The way they found was the use of blunt force.
and don’t forget this;
If game 5 was tough, game 6 in Long Island might have been even more vicious, with less than 2 minutes to play, Tucker, Corson and Domi all dropped their gloves with Bates, Cairns and Cummings all more than willing combatants.
The Leafs won in seven but the hard-nosed trench war of a series left the team battered and bruised and with the Sens having cake walked the Flyers, the next chapter in the Battle of Ontario was about to be written. To the horror of Leaf fans the big swede, the Captain and most talented player, a future HOFer would not be available still suffering from a broken wrist that left him unable to even hold his stick. The Leafs were there for the taking.
The senators had Alfredsson and Spezza and Heatley, high end offensive fire power that blew away the flyers in 5 games. Without Sudin the Leafs would be in very tuff to beat this team. After getting blown out on home ice 5-0 in game one it was obvious that someone or someones would have to step up and try to fill the void.
Gary Roberts, Clap Clap, clap clap clap
Gary Roberts Clap Clap clap clap clap
At this point in his career it’s safe to say Roberts best days were behind him, but the aged warrior wasn’t going to let a few grey hairs stop him. He may have had a surgically repaired neck but his shoulders were still strong enough to carry the team through the series. 10 points in 7 games, none bigger than this triple OT winner in Game 2…
It was an epic chapter in the battle of Ontario that was not without controversy. With series knotted 2-2 Game 5 was tied at two’s late in the third when Daniel Alfredsson AKA Krusty the Clown did this…
No call on the play! At minimum it’s 2 for boarding. This is actually 5 and a game, unless the guy getting hit wears blue and white. As we saw in the earlier clip of Roberts hitting Kenny Jonsson of the Islanders. Even the Senators coach, Jacques Martin, when asked about the play in the press conference said Krusty’s hit was exactly like the Roberts hit. He was then informed that the Roberts was penalized for his hit and was at a loss for words. Leafs nation was pissed, to say the least. Visions of another non call flashed before our eyes.
When a team loses on a blown call they can choose one of two paths to take; 1) they can’t get over the controversy and fold, the controversy is the excuse they use to quit 2) they galvanize, they grow stronger, they die hard. They won’t let themselves go out like that. The 2002 Leafs chose path number 2.
As happy as the Sens were to win game 5, due to this controversy their joy was short lived. The Leafs won game 6 in Ottawa and shut the Sens out in game 7 winning the battle of Ontario…. Again!
Things were shaping up well for the Leafs too, the 8th seed Montreal Canadians had upset the 1 seed bruins and then lost to the Carolina Hurricanes who were seeded 3rd despite having the 7th best record in the East that year. All we had to do was knock off Jeff ‘Odog” O’Neil and the Nascar loving southerners and we would be booking a date with Lord Stanley!
This of course didn’t happen. Despite Sundin returning and Gary’s old man heroics and Cujo being Cujo, we lost in 6 to the Canes. The Canes clutched and they grabbed and when it was all said and done we lost. In my opinion, we were playing with too many bumps, bruises and breaks. The vicious Islander series followed by the Battle of Ontario took serious chunks out of the Leafs. They didn’t march down to Carolina they hobbled. They gave everything they had left but it wasn’t enough. The Canes themselves were downed rather easily in four games in the finals to the powerhouse red wings. In all honesty, I’m not sure we could have fared much better.
I wrote about the epic road trip my friends and I took to Carolina here
I wrote about 1993 here
These were two great Leaf teams that hold great memories and a special place in my leafs soul. 2002 was 15 years ago. Far too long ago. An entire generation of leafs fans have grown up without the feeling of a great playoff run, without leaf inspired road trips or leaf moments that last lifetimes. My oldest son is 12, the only leafs playoff team he has ever known left him face down crying in the carpet in front of the TV. The past 15 years or so have been shameful.
2002 was not the last time the Leafs were in the playoffs, but it was the last time the Leafs made a genuine run. I don’t know what will happen in 2017, let’s face it the caps are the Presidents trophy winners and for good reason, but I know that it already feels like this team is on a run!
If you’re young or young at heart at least get out there. Cheer loud, drink too much, skip work and drive to DC, be true to your inner leaf self, make leaf memories, be a die-hard leaf fan, it will be worth it, I promise.
Even if this isn’t the year, 2017 is different. It is. We all know it and we all feel it. The team is on the verge of greatness. When Gardiner kicked the puck through McElhinneys legs on Saturday night, we all felt a collective gut punch. That would have been the Leafiest of Leaf ways to lose a crucial game, right? But they didn’t lose, they came back and scored two beautiful goals and then an empty netter scored by their most beautiful player. That Gardiner own goal would have broken Leafs teams of the past. Not this group.
Maybe someday I’ll write about the great 2017 run as well.
Go Leafs Go