As the Air Canada Centre crowd chanted “We Want Ottawa” on Sunday it was obvious that the team the Maple Leafs used to absolutely dine on in the Stanley Cup playoffs would be the preferred opponent to the the Washington Capitals, who finished first overall in the NHL this season.
Speaking of firsts – this is the first playoff series between the Maple Leafs and Capitals and it inspired me to come up with some Leafs/Capitals fun facts:
1974: The Capitals and Kansas City Scouts join the NHL as two expansion teams, increasing the total number of NHL teams to 16. The Capitals first-ever No. 1 goaltender would be Ron Low, whom they selected from the Toronto Maple Leafs in the expansion draft. Low and the Capitals would endure a 8-67-5 first season.
Among the other 15 NHL franchises that were in existence in 1974, the Capitals are the only one that the Toronto Maple Leafs have to meet in the playoffs. The Leafs have obviously played many series against the other five Original Six teams. They have also played playoff series against the six expansion teams that entered the NHL in 1967. Keep in mind the California Seals became the Cleveland Barons, who became the Minnesota North Stars and then the Dallas Stars.
Buffalo and Vancouver entered via expansion in 1970 as did Atlanta (later moving to Calgary) and the New York Islanders in 1972. The Maple Leafs have had at least one playoff series against each of them.
1982: The Leafs are selecting third overall in the NHL Draft. The consensus top three picks were defenceman Gord Kluzak and Gary Nylund along with forward Brian Bellows. The Leafs truly felt like they had drafted a stud defenceman when they selected Nylund.
That would not prove to be the case as knee injuries would be a big part of Nylund’s ordinary NHL career. The next defenceman selected in that draft would be fifth overall, and by the Capitals. They selected Scott Stevens and they have their young “stud” defenceman for years to come. The losing woes of the Capitals over that period would become a distant memory. Stevens would later net Washignton five first-round selections from the St. Louis Blues when they sign him as a free agent.
Jan. 6th, 1983: Yes, this seems like a non-descript date and a non-descript Leaf game. It is a 3-1 victory for the Leafs in the Capitals home arena in Landover, MD. Why so significant? Well, it marks the Leafs’ first road victory of the season after they start the season 0-13-5 in their first 18 road games of the season, which remains a team record.
Jan. 16th, 1991: Thank you, Floyd? A few months before Cliff Fletcher would become the general manager of the Maple Leafs, the then Leafs’ general manager Floyd Smith would make an almost “quiet” trade with Washington that would actually bear significant fruit in the future.
A “quiet” trade? Likely because more Leaf fans were focused on an Oct. 1989 trade where Smith had acquired Tom Kurvers from Lou Lamoriello’s New Jersey Devils in exchange for the Leafs’ first-round selection in the 1991 NHL Entry Draft. The possibility of the Leafs finishing dead last in 1991 was not totally out of the question. That meant that the Devils would be able to select generational superstar junior Eric Lindros with the Leafs’ first overall pick. The Leafs came second last so Lindros was drafted by Quebec, the expansion San Jose Sharks took Pat Falloon and the Devils still scored big with the selection of Scott Niedermayer with the pick acquired from the Leafs.
So, the acquisition of Bob Rouse and Peter Zezel from the Capitals in exchange for Al Iafrate didn’t seem to be a front-burner topic. But two years later, with Fletcher at the GM helm, Rouse would be a solid D and Zezel centering a strong checking line between Mark Osborne and Bill Berg that was a big contributor in the great Leaf playoff runs in 1993 and 1994.
Summer, 1998: Fletcher is out and Ken Dryden is the new president and general manager of the Maple Leafs. In true Dryden fashion, he is taking his time putting a management team in place. David Poile has just been relieved of his duties as general manager of the Capitals. He has great interest in that job with the Leafs and it appears that Dryden has serious interest in Poile becoming his GM. Whatever happens that month of July, they can’t seem to come to an agreement and Poile heads to Nashville to become the first (and to this point, only) general manager of the Nashville Predators.
Dryden later puts a group together that includes Mike Smith as associate general manager and Anders Hedberg as assistant general manager. Dryden keeps the GM title.
2014 – 2015 NHL Regular Season
November 29th, 2014: All seems well with the Leaf season and they notch a big 6-2 win over the Capitals at the ACC. It seems like an almost insignificant moment. Alex Ovechkin gives Leo Komorov a borderline cheap shot bump. Komorov has one of those day-to-day injuries that evolves into a significant amount of time missed. The Leafs keep their winning ways for another week or so and then fall into a losing abyss that they just can’t recover from. The loss of Komorov becomes more and more significant.
January 4th, 2015: What a difference five weeks can make. The Leafs play the Capitals again at the ACC and head coach Randy Carlyle had just been fired the day before, paying the price for the fall into the aforementioned losing abyss. This time it is the Capitals that record the 6-2 win over the Leafs in the first game of the brief Peter Horachek era as the Leafs’ head coach. Little did Horachek realize at the time that this brutal loss would be an accurate barometer of the weeks and months to come for his brief time behind the Leaf bench.
April 9th, 2017: As the final buzzer sounded in the Leafs’ 3-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets in their final regular season game, I headed to the broadcast booth to do my Leafs’ post-game show duties. Bob McGill of Leafs TV was just ahead of me as he headed downstairs to do his post-game duties. The building had an air of disappointment after the Leafs had blown a 2-0 lead and the loss to the Blue Jackets meant they would face Washington rather than Ottawa.
I said to McGill, “Well, they are just going to have to beat the favorites like you and Clarkie did in 1986.” He smiled and nodded at the very pleasant memory. With so many comparables to the outstanding rookie seasons of the only two No. 1 overall NHL draft picks by the Leafs in their team history, Matthews has a chance to do what Wendel Clark and the Leafs did in 1986.
That Leaf team finished the season with a 25-38-7 record (yes, 13 games under .500 was good enough to squeak into the playoffs in the old Norris Division days) and faced the Norris-leading Chicago Blackhawks who had a record of 39-33-8, which gave them 86 points, a full 29 points better than the Leafs’ total of 57.
As the Leaf scoreboard still vividly recounts, the visual of Clark’s goal celebration with his blood spattered Leaf jersey clearly visible, was from the third and final game of the three-game sweep that the Leafs delivered to the highly favoured Blackhawks in that last year of best-of-five playoff series in 1986.
Do Auston Matthews and the 2017 Maple Leafs have one more card to play to repeat what Clark and Co. did 31 years ago? Stay tuned.