The early ’90s were an incredible time to be a Toronto sports fan. The Blue Jays captured back-to-back titles in 1992 and 1993, while the Maple Leafs, in those same years, traversed the road back to respectability following the tumultuous (and largely disastrous) Harold Ballard era.
Following successive seasons of seemingly-endless roster turnover (the 1991-92 Leafs closed out the year with only 4 members remaining from the 1989-90 squad) and less-than-stellar results, Leafs’ GM Cliff Fletcher felt he had finally established the right mix of youth and veteran experience to produce a legitimate contender. In fact, during the 1992 offseason, the man known as Trader Cliff somewhat surprisingly made only one deal of note: sending a future 3rd round pick (Martin Belanger) to Montreal for 25-year old shutdown defender Sylvain Lefebvre.
But Fletcher’s most impactful move would not prove to be a trade; rather, it would be the offseason hiring of former Montreal coach Pat Burns, whose fiery, no-nonsense approach would translate almost immediately to his players — especially franchise centrepiece Doug Gilmour.
Entering the 1992-93 season, the Leafs’ roster was comprised of the following players:
Glenn Anderson, Ken Baumgartner, Nikolai Borschevsky, Wendel Clark, Mike Foligno, Doug Gilmour, Mike Krushelnyski, Guy Larose, Dave McLlwain, Kent Manderville, Mark Osborne, Rob Pearson, Joe Sacco, Peter Zezel.
Drake Berehowsky, Dave Ellett, Todd Gill, Sylvain Lefebvre, Jamie Macoun, Dmitri Mironov, Bob Rouse.
Grant Fuhr, Felix Potvin
Other players in the system who would make appearances during the season included forwards Mike Eastwood, Ken McRae and Dave Tomlinson; defenders Bob McGill and Darryl Shannon; and veteran goaltender Rick Wamsley, who would appear in three midseason games before retiring after a 13-year NHL career.
Unfortunately, the Leafs’ scoring depth took a hit when they lost promising young forward Brian Bradley to Tampa Bay in the offseason expansion draft. Bradley would promptly score 42 goals for the Lightning in their inaugural season.
While many can recite how the Maple Leafs’ 1992-93 season ended, few remember that it didn’t begin on the most encouraging note.Â Although Gilmour was producing at a stellar rate alongside rookie Nikolai Borschevsky, overall scoring depth and inconsistent goaltending from Grant Fuhr saw the team hovering just above the .500 mark for the first two months of the season. To address the lack of scoring punch, Fletcher sent a future 2nd round pick (Vlastimil Kroupa) to the Hartford Whalers for former 92- and 94-point scorer John Cullen. The acquisition of Cullen, a natural centre, allowed a struggling Mike Krushelnyski to shift back to his natural wing position, and pushed two-way wizard Peter Zezel into a third line role, providing the team legitimate offensive threats on three of its four lines.Â A week later, Fletcher nabbed winger/defender/all-around-pest Bill Berg off waivers from the New York Islanders to supplement his club’s defensive prowess.
The boost Cullen’s acquisition provided the offense (and the boost provided to the checking game by Berg) did not have the immediate impact Fletcher had hoped for, as Fuhr’s tendency to run hot-and-cold and Potvin’s rookie learning curve left the team struggling to maintain a .500 record.Â By Boxing Day, 34 games in, the Leafs were staring at a 13-16-5 record, with hopes of this being the year for a return to the playoffs beginning to fade.
The Turnaround and the Trade
But then something happened. Call it a Christmas miracle, or the stars aligning, or a new beginning for a New Year, but for whatever reason the goaltenders suddenly found their game.Â From December 27 through February 1, the Leafs went 11-4-3, allowing 2.39 goals/game, with Fuhr and Potvin posting respective 8-3-2 and 3-1-1 records in that span.
Buoyed by Fuhr’s resurgence, and impressed by Potvin’s play through 24 games to that point, Fletcher convinced the Buffalo Sabres to send two-time 40 goal scorer Dave Andreychuk, veteran goaltender Daren Puppa, and a 1st round pick (Kenny Jonsson) in exchange for Fuhr and a 5th round pick (Kevin Popp) in what would turn out to be yet another lopsided deal for The Silver Fox.
A Stretch Run for the Ages
The acquisition of Andreychuk finally resolved the Leafs’ season-long issue of finding a bonafide goal-scorer to round out the offense. Shortly after the deal, the Leafs would embark on a 9-game unbeaten streak (8-0-1) to close out the month of February, a feat all the more remarkable considering team captain Wendel Clark missed most of the month with injury. Bolstered by Clark’s return, the team posted a 9-3-2 record in March, and overall a 20-9-3 record in the wake of the Fuhr-Andreychuk trade en route to a then-franchise record 99 point season.
Andreychuk and Gilmour clicked instantly, with “The Immovable Object” providing a much needed net presence: In 31 post-trade games with the Leafs, Andreychuk scored 25 goals to reach the 50-goal plateau for the first time in his career (becoming the first Toronto player accomplish the feat in nearly a decade). Gilmour, meanwhile, would finish the year with a franchise-record 127 points — good for 7th in the league behind only Mario Lemieux, Pat LaFontaine, Adam Oates, Steve Yzerman, Teemu Selanne and Pierre Turgeon, and tied with Alexander Mogilny. The definition of the phrase “fire in his eyes”, Gilmour — while not the biggest of players — could dominate a game seemingly through sheer force of will alone.
Lost among the offensive explosion was the stellar play of Potvin, who finished the regular season with a 25-15-7 record, a league-leading 2.50 GAA, and a .910 SV% (second only to Curtis Joseph’s .911). However, not playing regularly until the second half of the season cost him a shot at both the Vezina (Ed Belfour, 41 wins) and Calder (Selanne, 76 goals) trophies.
Other players of note included Borschevsky, who notched 34 goals as a 27-year old rookie, and Dmitri Mironov, who put up an impressive 31 points in 59 games as a 26-year old rookie.Â John Cullen, despite an injury-plagued year, was able to register 41 points in 47 games in a second-line role.Â Rob Pearson notched 23 goals and over 200 PIM as a 22-year old, while Glenn Anderson topped 20 goals for the 12th time in 13 seasons.
Despite a franchise-record 99 points, the Leafs finished third in the Norris Division behind the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings, ensuring a first-round Original Six matchup with the Wings (the Blackhawks would play the St.Louis Blues, who finished fourth in the division).Â Regular season success notwithstanding, the Leafs were not considered a threat to the Wings’ offensive powerhouse which featured the likes of Steve Yzerman (58 goals), Dino Ciccarelli (41 goals), Sergei Fedorov (34 goals), Paul Ysebaert (34 goals), and Ray Sheppard (32 goals) … not to mention veteran superstar Paul Coffey and young superstar-in-the-making Niklas Lidstrom manning the blueline.
An Unbelievable Turn of Events
The series opened with the heavily-favored Red Wings taking the first two games decisively at home by scores of 6-3 and 6-2, losing Borschevsky to an eye injury in Game 1. Back at Maple Leaf Gardens, the Leafs rode a pair of sensational performances by Potvin to 4-2 and 3-2 victories to even the series.Â The Leafs would stun the Red Wings with a 5-4 overtime victory (featuring the single greatest goal celebration ever by a Leafs’ player) at Joe Louis Arena to take a 3-2 series lead, only to watch the Wings crush their hopes of series win at home in humiliating fashion by way of a 7-3 blowout.
The stage was set for Game 7 in Detroit. Anderson and Ysebaert traded goals in a back-and-forth first, while Rouse’s second period tally for the Leafs was quickly countered by Dallas Drake and Shawn Burr to give the Wings’ a 3-2 lead entering the 3rd. With Detroit shutting down the Toronto attack for much of the 3rd, the season appeared over until Doug Gilmour snapped a Wendel Clark feed past Detroit goaltender Tim Cheveldae with 2:43 remaining in regulation.Â In the final seconds of the 3rd, the Leafs thought for a moment they may have won the game, as replays showed a Peter Zezel wraparound may have actually crossed the goal line. However, referee Don Koharski opted not to call for a review of the play, and the game was off to overtime.
Both teams took a cautious approach to the overtime, each patiently looking to exploit holes, neither too eager to over-commit to the offensive zone. But then a Detroit fan threw a squid onto the ice (a tradition dating back to the 1950s), and the Leafs seemed to awaken. Pressing in the offensive zone, Clark won a race to a loose puck along the boards, chipping it out to Gilmour who promptly slid it across for a Bob Rouse one-timer … which was tipped by Nikolai Borschevsky, playing in his first game back from injury, past a surprised Tim Cheveldae to shock the Wings — and the hockey world.
Considering the heartbreak throughout the 1970’s and the terrible teams of the ’80s, many would argue Borschevsky’s goal was perhaps the Leafs’ most important score in two decades. Knocking off the heavily-favored Red Wings sent a message to the rest of the league: the Maple Leafs were back, and were here to play.
In the post-game media scrum, Todd Gill, who had endured the dark days of the ’80s, was near tears describing what the victory meant for the franchise. Pat Burns referred to the Game 7 victory as “an apology” of sorts for the horror show that was Game 6. But it was hero-of-the-day Nikolai Borschevsky who summed it up perfectly: “Unbelievable”.
Meet Me in St. Louis
In the aftermath of the Detroit series, and the importance of the victory to hockey in Toronto, one could forgive the Maple Leafs if they came out flat against St. Louis, who had shockingly dispatched the Chicago Blackhawks in four straight.Â But head coach Pat Burns wasn’t one to accept excuses, and was sure to have his team competing from the get-go.Â Facing regular-season save percentage leader Curtis Joseph was a task assumed to be anything but easy, and sure enough the Leafs found themselves heading to double-overtime in Game 1 with the score tied at one apiece.Â And in that second overtime, Gilmour scored one of the most famous Leafs playoff OT winners ever (scoring play at 6:50, but nostalgia buffs really should watch the whole thing) to give the Leafs a 1-0 series lead. Oh, and this happened.
Game 2 was again a tight goaltending battle, and again a 1-1 tie extending into double overtime, but this time it was the Blues who would come out on top to split the first two games in Toronto. In St. Louis, the teams split games 3 and 4 (4-3 StL, 4-1 Tor respectively), and the back-and-forth continued with the Leafs taking the fifth game 5-1 and the Blues narrowly escaping the sixth with a 2-1 win to force Game 7.
However, this time there would be no seventh game overtime dramatics, as the Leafs would shell the Blues to the tune of a 6-0 shutout victory … in the first Game 7 played at Maple Leaf Gardens since 1964. Oh, and this happened.
The City of Angels Awaits
Waiting for the Leafs were Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings, who had previously dispatched both Calgary and Vancouver to advance to the Conference Finals.Â The Leafs had confidence borne of consecutive Game 7 series wins; the Kings had Gretzky. The Leafs had Wendel Clark playing arguably the finest hockey of his career; the Kings had Gretzky.Â Predictably, the series went back-and-forth: the Leafs opened the series with a 4-1 victory in Toronto, the Kings responded with a 3-2 victory. The Kings took the series lead with a 4-2 victory at home, the Leafs responded with a 4-2 victory of their own to tie things up.Â A 3-2 Leafs overtime victory in Game 5 set the stage for what so many had for so long dreamed impossible: an opportunity to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in a quarter century.
Back in LA for Game 6, the Leafs found themselves trailing the Kings 4-3 late before Wendel Clark’s hat-trick goal with 90 seconds remaining sent the game to overtime … which is when disaster struck.Â With just seconds remaining in a Glenn Anderson penalty, Wayne Gretzky’s stick clipped Doug Gilmour, cutting him and all but ensuring a forthcoming Leafs powerplay.Â Except it never happened (at least, not in referee Kerry Fraser’s eyes). After much debate and an extended referee/linesmen conference, Fraser decided nobody saw the play cleanly enough to be able to call the penalty. You can guess what happened next. Gretzky shoots … he scores! It is a sequence which, to this day, haunts the dreams of Leafs’ fans throughout The Nation.
Of course, there was still a Game 7 to play, and the upside was the Leafs would play it on their home ice.Â But three consecutive 7-game series — read: 21 games in 41 nights — are bound to catch up with any team. Toronto’s favorite sons, already a bruised and battered bunch, fought valiantly but ultimately fell 5-4 on a night where Gretzky once again proved why he was “The Great One”, with 4 points including a hat trick of his own.
Gretzky’s Kings would go on to lose in the Stanley Cup Final, a turn of events which under normal circumstances would have provide some form of consolation to Leafs’ fans … except the team that won the Cup just so happened to be Toronto’s most bitter rival, the Montreal Canadiens. Salt in a wound never felt worse.
Despite the heartbreaking end to the playoff run, Maple Leafs fans had much to be excited about. Following the season, Pat Burns was awarded the Jack Adams trophy as the top coach in the league. Doug Gilmour received the Selke trophy as the league’s top defensive forward, and he and Dave Andreychuk looked to be an unstoppable tandem on the top line. Wendel Clark was finally healthy, and had proven with a dominant post-season performance that his best was yet to come. The defense corps was among the league’s best, and Felix Potvin was widely regarded as a star in the making.
In short, the Toronto Maple Leafs were BACK, baby — and weren’t about to allow anyone to slap them with the “one year wonder” tag.
But that is a story for another day.
Looking forward to your thoughts as always,