Saturday, March 31, 2012

City to City

This originally ran in Cold As Ice, the hockey column I co-write for Popblerd.
Even though they’re located just a few hours apart on opposite sides of the U.S.-Canada border, Buffalo and Toronto are very different cities. One’s a blue-collar burg known for heavy snowfall and chicken wings, the other’s the largest city in Canada known for its cosmopolitan image and gleaming skyline. And in the NHL, Buffalo and Toronto have been heading in opposite directions all season long.

On Feb. 6, the Toronto Maple Leafs were sitting two points out of fourth place in the NHL’s Eastern Conference and were seemingly a lock to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004. The Leafs had won three straight and five of their last six and all looked right in Toronto. And then…they hit the wall.

After that date, Toronto went on a 2-15 skid, a choke of monumental proportions. The team changed coaches in the middle of the losing streak, but it hasn’t made much of a difference and on Tuesday night, the Leafs were officially eliminated from the playoffs yet again.

Conversely, the Buffalo Sabres looked all but dead in mid-February, sitting firmly in 14th place in the East. Since then, the Sabres have gone 14-2-4, shooting up to eighth place in the conference with a big win over Washington on Tuesday. With five games left in the regular season, the Sabres are trending upwards.

The same Sabres fans who were calling for the heads of GM Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff in February are no doubt singing their praises now. Unlike their counterparts across Lake Ontario, who are facing yet another spring without playoff hockey. Toronto GM Brian Burke, one of the most brash and outspoken personalities in the league, is feeling the heat as the boos rain down night after night at the Air Canada Center, where the Leafs haven’t won since—you guessed it—Feb. 6.

The key to Buffalo’s resurgence has been the red-hot play of goalie Ryan Miller, who struggled for the first half of the season but has rediscovered his game. Earlier in the season, the Sabres suffered from a combination of poor play and injuries to key players. Now, the team’s benefiting from Miller’s return to form and unexpected offense from the trio of Drew Stafford, Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno, which has amassed 38 points in nine games.

The Leafs have struggled with their goaltending all season, but seemed to be in good position after Jonas “The Monster” Gustavsson got on a roll in January and designated number one goalie James Reimer returned after missing 18 games with concussion-like symptoms and reeled off a couple of shutouts over Pittsburgh and Ottawa, the last one taking place on that key date, Feb. 6. Burke and then-coach Ron Wilson had put together a young, speedy run-and-gun team led by Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul that could put the puck in the net but struggled in the defensive end; the Leafs had the league’s worst penalty kill as of Jan. 1, but suddenly tightened up and went most of the month without giving up a power play goal. The team was far from perfect, but it looked like the playoffs were a reality. Until the Leafs found new and excruciating ways to lose games night after night. Defense-minded Randy Carlyle was brought in to replace Wilson on March 2, but he hasn’t been able to turn the team around—not this season, anyway.

For long-suffering Toronto fans such as myself, this wasn’t really anything new. The Leafs last won the Stanley Cup in 1967 and in addition to that 45-year drought being the longest in the league, Toronto hasn’t even made the Cup finals in that span, which is a record. The closest the Leafs have gotten was the semi-finals, which they reached in 1978, 1993, 1994, 1999 and 2002, but of all those teams, it was the 1993 group led by Doug Gilmour that had the best shot at actually winning it all. Until they ran into some guy named Gretzky, who dominated the Leafs in game 7 to send the LA Kings to their first and only Cup final, where they lost to Montreal. Prior to the last lockout in 2004, the Leafs had been perennial playoff contenders for several years but never seemed to be able to get to the next level. Post-lockout, the Leafs came close to the playoffs a few times but since Mats Sundin left town in 2008, the team hasn’t been able to replace both his leadership and his superstar ability.

Buffalo has come much closer to the big prize since entering the league 1970-71, losing in the finals in 1975 and again in heartbreaking fashion in 1999, when Dallas’ Brett Hull scored the Cup-winning goal in overtime with his skate clearly in the goal crease (which at the time was against league rules). The Sabres have had an exciting collection of players over the last several years, including Miller, Thomas Vanek and Derek Roy, but when they’ve made the playoffs, they haven’t been able to get past the conference finals. This year, if Buffalo gets into the postseason, the team could pull off some upsets and shock a few higher-seeded teams.

Meanwhile, the biggest question in Toronto is whether Burke will keep his job and return for another season. The saddest part of the situation is there are generations of Leafs fans who haven’t seen their team even come close to winning the Cup; hell, the latest generation hasn’t seen so much as a single playoff game. In Toronto, there’s always next season…to get your heart broken all over again.

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