Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 19, 2022

A Proud History, Or Just An Old Story?

A NOTE TO READERS:  On Sports and Life will be traveling this weekend.  The next post will be delayed by one day, until Monday.  Thanks for your support.

We are still weeks away from the moment that is the pinnacle of every National Hockey League season, when a team captain lifts the oversize trophy that is the oldest championship prize in North American sports high over his head and begins a celebratory skate around the rink on which his squad has just won the Stanley Cup.  But while this year’s NHL postseason still has have far to go, the Stanley Cup Playoffs have already provided plenty of drama.  With five of the eight opening series going the full seven games, these playoffs mark the first time that more than fifty games were needed to settle just the first round.  Those five Game 7s were the most in a single postseason round in three decades, and just to add to the tension, three of those contests went to overtime.   

A series that did not require its full scheduled complement of games was the one between the Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals.  Florida was the best team in the league during the regular season, claiming the Presidents’ Trophy with 122 points.  As hockey fans know, that is often a somewhat dubious honor once the postseason starts.  The last club to win the Stanley Cup after also finishing the regular season with the league’s best record was Chicago in 2013.  While that was the eighth time since the Trophy was first awarded in 1986 that the winner went on to capture the NHL title, over the same period the franchise with the best regular season mark has been bounced out in the very first round of the playoffs on an almost matching seven occasions.  Whatever the next month or so holds for the Panthers, at least Florida avoided that ignominy by skating past Washington, four games to two.  It was the first postseason series win for the Panthers since the 1996 Eastern Conference Final.  Of course, the fact that Florida only made it to the postseason a half dozen times over the intervening quarter century contributed greatly to that lengthy drought.

But if this NHL postseason has already brought, if not ultimate joy, at least relief to fans in greater Miami, not exactly a hockey hotbed of long standing, it has also visited continuing disappointment and frustration on the faithful of a franchise with a far deeper history in the sport.  In Toronto, the NHL’s longest string of Stanley Cup futility continues.

The Maple Leafs are the opposite of the Panthers in ways that go beyond the natural affinity for ice hockey in the country where it was first played as an organized sport, versus the manufactured love of the game in an area where palm trees vastly outnumber rinks.  Florida is a 1993 expansion franchise, joining the NHL along with the Anaheim Ducks when the league went from twenty-four to twenty-six teams.  This year marks just the eighth time the Panthers have advanced to the postseason, and only one of those trips took the team all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, when it was swept by Colorado in 1996.  Counting the six game opening round win over the Capitals, the Panthers have played a total of just sixty games in the playoffs.

Toronto was one of the founding members of the NHL, which was organized in 1917 to replace the eight-year-old National Hockey Association after a dispute among NHA team owners.  The team, then known as the Arenas, won the new league’s first championship.  At that time, the Stanley Cup was not exclusive to the brand new NHL but was instead played as a best-of-five series against the Vancouver Millionaires, which was not a group of high-tech entrepreneurs but the champion of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association.  The three games to two victory gave the franchise that became the Maple Leafs two name changes later the first of its thirteen Stanley Cup titles, second only to Montreal in NHL history.  The team has won almost a thousand more regular season games than Florida has played, and Toronto’s 570 postseason contests dwarf the Panthers’ tiny total.

The franchise’s history is grand.  The problem for Toronto fans is that it is also increasingly ancient history.  The Maple Leafs last won the Stanley Cup in 1967.  With this week’s postseason exit at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto’s championship drought stretched to 55 years, eclipsing the New York Rangers long wandering in the desert from 1940 to 1954 to become the longest in NHL history.  And the most recent years have arguably been the worst.  From the franchise’s founding until 2004-05, when an entire NHL season was lost to an owners’ lockout, the Maple Leafs longest absence from the playoffs was a three-year period of futility beginning in 1925.  But when the NHL returned to the ice for the 2005-06 season, Toronto began a stretch in which it failed to make the postseason in ten of the next eleven years, including the first seven in a row.  The one season the Maple Leafs made the playoffs, the appearance was brief, with the club losing in the opening round.

In each of the last six years the franchise has at least qualified for the league’s tournament.  But that one-and-done experience in 2013 proved to be a harbinger, as the Leafs have fallen in the opening round in every one of those seasons.  Adding to the agony of fans in Toronto is that in six of the seven straight first round defeats, the series went the distance, meaning the Maple Leafs could have advanced in any season with just a single victory.

Instead, there have been endings to seasons like 2013’s, when Toronto entered the final period of Game 7 against Boston leading 4-1, only to see its lead trimmed midway through the frame and then have the Bruins score twice in the final ninety seconds of regulation to send the game to overtime, where Boston completed its comeback.  Or like last year, when the Maple Leafs took a commanding three games to one lead over archrival Montreal, only to see the Canadiens storm back to win three in a row, the first two in overtime.

This season was no better.  Toronto led Tampa Bay three games to two and rallied from a two-goal deficit to tie Game 6 at 3-3.  But the Lightning struck in overtime to force a Game 7, and the Maple Leafs played from behind throughout the decider, eventually falling 2-1 to usher in one more early offseason.  The Stanley Cup Playoffs go on, and if the opening round was indicative of what is to come there will be plenty more drama before some team captain lifts the Cup.  But there will be no more hockey thrills in Toronto this season.  There fans are left, as has been the case for far too many years, with fading memories of an ever more distant past, and a present filled with disappointment and doubt.

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