Source: Steve Russell/Toronto Star
The Leafs haven't won the cup since 1967. Generations have gone without witnessing the Leafs bringing old Stanley back to the golden horseshoe. While many Leafs fans say 93’ was the year Toronto should have gone to the finals, there's another Leafs team that I felt should have gone all the way as well, that's the 2002 Leafs team.
I loved the Pat Quinn led teams of the late nineties and early 2000's. They weren't the most flashy teams, they had gritty players like Darcy Tucker, Tie Domi, Shayne Carson and Gary Roberts, and played a physical style. Their Captain Mats Sundin was the main force on those teams and he usually led Toronto in almost every offensive category. Cujo was the keeper and played some of his best hockey in a Leafs uniform. Times were good, and more importantly, so was the team.
Coming into the 02' season Toronto decided to add some offensive weapons to help Mats Sundin, getting Russian sniper Alexander Mogilny, Robert Reichel and former Legion of Boom player Mikael Renberg. Toronto that season finished with 100 points, the second time in three seasons the Leafs accomplished that feat. Before Pat Quinn arrived no Leafs team ever reached 100 points. Despite that though, the Leafs finished second in the Northeast Division, their rivals in Boston would finish one point ahead to claim the division.
Their first round series would see them pinned against the Islanders. It was just the third time the two teams would play one another in the playoffs. The Leafs took Game 1 by a score of 3-1, scoring all three goals in the third period. In Game 2 Cujo would shutout the Islanders and the Leafs took a 2-0 advantage. The Islanders would get some payback with a blowout win in Game 3, shelling the Leafs with a 6-1 win. Cujo got pulled in the third. This is when the series would start getting ugly.
With the game out of hand the fights started to ramp up, Darcy Tucker and Jason Blake went at it, then Travis Green and Claude Lapointe got into their own scuffle. A misconduct was given to all involved. A scrum happened at the final horn with a couple of fights. That third period, both teams combined with 112 penalty minutes. Game 4 the Islanders tied the series up with a Shawn Bates penalty shot being the difference. 2-2 going back to Toronto.
Game 5 would be the turning point in the series, and it became infamous for a few things. Darcy Tucker took out Michael Peca but was deemed a clean by NHL standards at the time, but nonetheless Peca's season was done. Islanders defenceman Kenny Johnsson was taken out from behind by Gary Roberts, the Islanders lost two key players in one game. The Leafs capitalized with a pair of goals by McCabe and Hoglund. Leafs up 3-2.
Islanders Gm Mike Milbury banged the drum. "That's not playoff hockey," he said. "That's not hockey at all. That's thuggery.” when describing the Tucker and Roberts hits. This coming from the man who beat up a crowd member with his own shoe. The Islander fanbase responded by booing the Canadian anthem just before their game 6 meeting, we already know their fanbase is trash, but New York forced a game 7 beating Toronto 5-3. Playing angrily, the Islanders targeted Darcy Tucker and finally got him to drop the gloves. Three fights happened in that game, all of which came in the third period.
The Leafs had the last laugh winning the series. There were no fireworks in game 7 as both teams toned it down, Mogilny scored two goals in the clincher. Looking back, it was one of the ugliest series that I've ever watched. The Leafs beating the Islanders felt special, I despised the Islanders from there on out.
Toronto limped their way to the second round and played against the Ottawa Senators. Pardon my french, but I fucking hated the Ottawa Senators growing up. I thought Daniel Alfredsson was a clown. I hated how annoying their goal horn sounded. Ottawa had the Leafs number in the regular season but when it mattered most Toronto bested their provincial foe.
The Leafs were exhausted in game 1, playing game 7 just two days prior, the Sens won 5-0. In game 2, the Leafs played better scoring two goals in the opening frame, but Ottawa fought back to tie the game and sent it to overtime. It took three OT periods but Roberts would send a wrist shot through the five hole of Sens goalie Patrick Lalime.
Broadcaster Bob Cole with a legendary Leafs call on Gary Roberts. "His first shot on goal in the game and his biggest shot of the night." The Leafs tied the series with that winner.
Ottawa would once again reclaim the series lead winning by a score of 3-2. Toronto would answer back winning game 4 thanks to an unsung hero in Alyn McCauley and Gary Roberts who combined for 4 points. That same line produced for the Leafs and started where they left off from game 4.
Controversy struck in game 5 though, late in the third period tied at 2, Alfredsson hit Tucker from behind into the boards and seconds later scored the game winner. There was no call on the play. I was so pissed and couldn’t believe the refs missed such an obvious call. Although, it may have been karma for what Tucker and Roberts did to Peca and Johnsson in the previous series. Though this non call cost Toronto the game. It made me hate Alfredsson even more.
The Leafs were facing elimination in game 6 and desperation was setting in. The game was tied heading to the third period, but Alexander Mogilny played hero by scoring the go ahead goal sending the series to another game 7. Again, with everything on the line, Mogilny came through once again. His first goal went off a Sens player from the side of the net to give the Leafs first blood. Then he received a pass and shot it over the glove of Lalime to extend the lead to 2-0. McCabe added the cherry on top beating Lalime five hole with a slapshot, Curtis Joseph held pat getting the shutout with a 3-0 win.
The Leafs won, and eliminated the Sens in the process. Satisfaction at its best.
The stage was set in the East Finals. Leafs vs Hurricanes. Carolina was led by two time Stanley Cup champion Ron Francis, Eric Cole and Jeff O'Neill. Arturs Irbe was their goalie, and I thought Toronto would have it easy against Carolina, boy I was wrong about the Latvian netminder. The Hurricanes were the higher seed but the Leafs looked like the team of destiny. Needless to say, I was excited.
The Leafs won game 1 by a low scoring of 2-1. Curtis Joseph was great in net again stopping 31 of 32 shots. Even better, the Leafs won without Sundin, who missed the game because of a wrist injury he sustained in the Islanders series, but he would be back in game 2. The Leafs looked to be in great shape, though, Game 2 the Leafs lost in overtime thanks to Niclas Wallin. The series was tied at 1-1.
The low scoring continued in game 3 with the Hurricanes Jeff O'Neill scoring the game winner in overtime to give the Hurricanes the series lead. Through three games both teams only scored 9 goals, and the Leafs offensive woes would continue getting shutout in a pivotal game 4 matchup. It was frustrating because the Leafs were peppering Irbe with shots. The Leafs doubled up on Carolina in shots on goal 31-15 yet Carolina won 3-0, the Leafs jus couldn't figure out Irbe.
The Hurricanes were one game away from going to their first Stanley Cup final. I was praying for a Leafs comeback, but they were in a do or die situation for the rest of the series, it was gonna be tough to pull off. Toronto stayed alive in game 5 thanks to the performance of Curtis Joseph, stopping all of Carolina's 27 shots.
In game 6 there was no scoring until the third period. Tomas Kaberle gave away the puck in a brutal fashion giving O'Neill a clear path at the net, at first Joseph made the save but O'Neill tapped in his own rebound. Pulling the goalie with an extra attacker in the final minute Mats Sundin put the puck in the net, keeping the Leafs alive!
With that the game was sent to overtime. Once a hero, now scapegoat, Alexander Mogilny decides to clear the puck around the boards behind the Leafs net. One problem, there wasn’t a Leafs player even remotely close to the play. Hurricanes defenceman Petr Svoboda scoops up the puck, he finds Martin Gelinas in front of the Leafs net and puts it past Curtis Joseph. The Hurricanes beat the Leafs and advanced to the Stanley Cup final.
The Canes were no match against Detroit and lost in five games. Hasek got his cup, but I can’t help but look back and think how awesome it would've been to have seen a Leaf-Wings finals.
2002 was a wild year. So many memories, and the team was one of the most exciting Toronto sides ever put on the ice. I'll remember that intense Islanders series, knocking off Ottawa again in the playoffs, and Mats Sundin’s game tying goal in game 6 to send it to overtime. 2002 was an amazing year to be a Leafs fan but thanks to the Hurricanes and Martin Gelinas we’ll never know just how amazing it could have been.