May 4th, 2004.
Both teams, tired and weary from what had already been a long, arduous road, a journey that had left both teams battered and bruised. Â The teams went back and forth, showing tremendous heart and determination, showing what it takes to win hockey games at this time of year.
Up the ice they went, rewarded with a good scoring chance, but stopped by a goaltender who was up to the task. Â Then down the ice the other way, another good chance, this time for the other team. Â The goalie in this net, equally up to the task of making the save and preserving life, for at least another moment.
Quickly, and in a whirlwind of emotion, it was over.
Moments after Darcy Tucker had laid out Sami Kapanen with one of the most bone crushing hits in recent memory, Jeremy Roenick broke free, strode down the ice, and snapped a wrist shot home that would end the playoffs for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The 2004 playoffs had once again ended in disappointment, and once again it had ended at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers.
Little did anyone realize at the time that it would be the last memory of Maple Leafs and the postseason for the remainder of the decade.
The following year, in 2005, the NHL would go dark, shutting down operations for an entire year due to a bitter labour dispute that resulted in a lockout of players that erased an entire season. Â When the league returned, the game had changed. Â It has changed, for the most part, for the better. Â The game is more open, there is an emphasis on skill and speed, and the talented players are allowed to play the game as talented players.
It also brought parity to the league, allowing for more close battles down the stretch, which no doubt led to excitement in the final weeks of the season. Â Excitement, and stress, of course.
For the Toronto Maple Leafs, that 2004 series against the Philadelphia Flyers was the last they would play, as they have been exiled to the outside looking in ever since. Â In the last few seasons, in fact, they haven’t even been close to entertaining a real thought of playing past April, but that isn’t to say it has always been that way.
During the course of their playoff drought, there have been a few close calls, a few glimmers of hope.
However, at times it would appear fate would conspire against the team, leaving them out of the playoffs in back-to-back years by the closest of margins, including a year in which journeyman goaltender Wade Dubielewicz led the New York Islanders to a shootout victory on the final day of the season, a victory that clinched a much needed point for the Islanders, one in which allowed them to take the 8th seed away from the Leafs at the last possible second.
That was, of course, after the Islanders opponent, the New Jersey Devils, tied the game with .7 seconds left, to add to the drama and, yes, the stress.
The fact that the Leafs have not been to the playoffs since that 2004 season has been agonizing for Leafs fans. Â Perhaps the thing that made it that much harder to handle is the fact that the first two years following the lockout were spent as a fledgling franchise who, instead of getting the wheels started on a much needed rebuild, ignored the obvious and tried to patch together a team to make it into the playoffs.
However, the last two years things have changed, and changed for the better in the grand scheme of things. Â The Leafs got a new general manager in Brian Burke, a new coach in Ron Wilson, and a bevy of new players that include the likes of Phil Kessel, Kris Versteeg, Nikolai Kulemin, Dion Phaneuf, and J.S. Giguere, among others.
Also a slew of promising youngsters is beginning to seep into the team, eager to make their mark at the NHL level.
As with all teams that are younger (the Leafs will go into the season as one of the youngest teams on average in the NHL) it hasn’t always been easy as the players learn the game on the grandest stage, maturing right before our eyes. Â But as I called it last year, it’s losing for all the right reasons.
I think looking at the big picture, we can all take a few losses that were caused by a young player on a learning curve than a patchwork player doing the same.
Those playoff battles against Ottawa and Philadelphia seem like an eternity ago, and that’s because in hockey years, they were. Â Tomas Kaberle remains the only link to those teams of past playoffs, and his status with the team is of course questionable.
The Leafs have made strides as a young team in the past few seasons, and have now begun to insulate the roster with young players who bring experience to the fold, but how realistic are the playoffs?
Last season the Montreal Canadiens got into the playoffs with 88 points, largely due to their powerplay, which was one of the best in the league. Â The 88 points the Habs needed to claim the final playoff spot was the lowest number needed in the past three seasons. Â In the two years prior, the magic number, if you will, was around 93, meaning teams would essentially need 93 points to ensure a spot in the playoffs.
Last year’s lower total may well be a mirage, something that needn’t be read into any further, but it is also entirely possible that the number could remain that low again this season.
With all due respect to the Eastern teams, the Western Conference has garnered much more attention and admiration from myself for the past few years. Â The games seem faster paced, the hitting seems harder, and at times, the skill level seems higher. Â In fact, last years eighth place seed in the East (Montreal) would have finished around 12th had they been in the West.
In further examining the Eastern Conference there are a few teams that stand out above the rest. Â Washington, New Jersey, and Pittsburgh will be near the top, as they should be for the next little while. Â One has to think Philadelphia and Montreal may be able to improve their position in the standings, but both have goaltender questions that makes you think twice.
The rest of the East could play out like a mixed bag.
Ottawa, Boston, and Buffalo all had good seasons, but did they do enough in the offseason to distance themselves from the non playoff teams? Â The distance from 6th to 12th in the East was a mere 11 points, which isn’t a lot when you consider margin of error going into this season.
It’s a crowded house in the East because after the first three or four constants, the teams fall off a little bit, meaning that a good stretch, prolonged win streak, or mere consistency on a nightly basis could be enough to get teams in the hunt.
And for that, there is reason for optimism in Leafs Nation.
The Maple Leafs improved in the last few months of the season to peak interest, and they only got better with acquisitions of Versteeg and Armstrong. Â When you consider the way the lower seeds in the East are bunched together with very little separating them, it is easy to see why a team like the Leafs may have the perfect make up to make some noise, and surprise some people, by grabbing the 7th or 8th spot.
As is life in the Eastern Conference, the bottom half of the playoff spots will be readily available for the team that wants them the most. Â Fans are hoping that team is Toronto, who could return the playoff heartbeat to the city for the first time since that fateful night in May.
My personal prediction? Â There is definitely a part of me that says this team can make the playoffs. Â The mere facts listed above, about the Eastern Conference being wide open, leads me to believe that the Leafs can make some noise and possibly grab one of the last two spots in the playoffs.
The more likely scenario, as far as I am concerned, is that this process, though moving forward, is far from complete. Â As with all young teams, there will be periods of inconsistency and questions as to whether there is enough offense. Â I wonder if one more year on the outside looking in will take place, and then finally the team will break through next season.
If I had to wager, I would bet that the Maple Leafs entertain us this season, and make a good run of things, but finish just outside of the playoffs the upcoming season.
But hey, make no mistake, this is one bet I could live with losing.