When the Toronto Maple Leafs swept the Ottawa Senators from the playoffs last week, delirious Leaf fans spilled into the streets for an hour or so of honking horns, hoisting tinfoil replicas of the Stanley Cup and singing “Na na, hey hey, goodbye.” Like they’d won something. Bemused folks in the rest of the country, who hardly need excuses to sneer at Toronto, and who also know the Cup won’t be handed out until June, got a really good laugh out of that. How world class.
Memo to the Centre of the Universe: hold the parade. You have to win four playoff rounds to capture Lord Stanley’s oftdented silver bowl. Beating Ottawa may only have given the Leafs the dubious honour of facing the New Jersey Devils. While it is true the Leafs played well against Ottawa, they had help. Many of the key Senators—especially Daniel Alfredsson, Shawn McEachern, Wade Redden and Alexei Yashin—played like they’d been abducted by aliens and replaced by lethargic likenesses. That won’t happen to the Devils. Having flown over the contaminatedsoil wasteland around the team’s home
rink, aliens know better than to mess with anyone from Jersey. So that would put Leaf captain Mats Sundin squarely in the crosshairs of the real Scott Stevens, Jersey’s bad-tempered blueliner who specializes in deboning the opposition’s best players with crunching body checks. At the other end, Toronto defenders would face the high-scoring Jason Arnott-Patrik Elias-Petr Sykora line. It could get ugly.
But at least Leaf fans can dream. Ottawans can’t, and they deserve an explanation.
The Senators had the 30team league’s fourth-best record and dominated the Leafs in the regular season, yet they collapsed when it counted. Some critics blamed the coach, forgetting that Jacques Martin is one of the best in the business. Others pointed out that Yashin was well checked, but that doesn’t explain why Ottawa’s other snipers fired blanks. A few credited the Leafs’ signings of free agents Shayne Corson and Gary Roberts last summer, but the notion that Toronto had built a so-called playoff team is vastly overstated. “If you build
solely for the playoffs,” Hockey Night in Canadas Harry Neale scoffed, “you’ll end up watching the playoffs. You have to play well all year.”
So what turns a good team bad? And conversely, what drives underdogs like Edmonton and Vancouver to play so well at this time of year? While matchups, injuries and past records have to be factored in when assessing a team’s chances, the Senators and Leafs showed that character and confidence—or the lack of them—are what really define a playoff team. “I’ve been with so-so teams that won because they had that strong team psyche,” says Neil Smith, who was general manager of the 1994 Cupwinning New York Rangers. “But I’ve also seen it slip away from good teams, and that’s frightening.”
For proof, there was dazed Sens coach Martin at the podium after being eliminated. Asked what went wrong, he offered the obvious—“If you score three goals in a series, you are not going to win many games.” But when pressed about why his team sagged when it fell behind, Martin was at a loss. “I don’t know,” he began, then added: “Their confidence was fragile. When you look at our hockey club, there’s not a lot of experience.” Contending teams typically add veterans before mounting their Cup campaigns. But Ottawa’s budget hasn’t any room for highly paid seniors, so the team must wait and hope its stellar youth corps learns how to win soon.
In the other locker room, Leafs coach Pat Quinn expressed a little surprise at his squad’s performance. And in his turn with reporters, he said there were times in the regular season when he doubted the Leafs had the “togetherness” needed to win in the gruelling playoffs. “Some guys show up, some don’t,” he said. “Our guys showed up.” And then he shrugged, because it was as much a mystery to him as it is to the rest of us. ED
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