Who Will Be Canada’s Team In The 2022-23 NHL Season?

Who Will Be Canada’s Team In The 2022-23 NHL Season?

We’re now over a month into the 2022-23 NHL season. As usual, I’m continuing my annual autumn tradition of examining each Canadian NHL team to determine which one has the best shot of ending the country’s nearly 30-year Stanley Cup drought.

Each team is listed here in alphabetical order, noting their general strengths and weaknesses.

I’ll summarize by selecting the one I believe could go all the way this season.

CALGARY FLAMES

Strengths: The Flames are coached by no-nonsense two-time Stanley Cup champion Darryl Sutter. They possess a Vezina Trophy finalist in goaltender Jacob Markstrom. Replaced departed forwards Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk with Jonathan Huberdeau and Nazem Kadri. They have a solid defense corps featuring Noah Hanifin, Rasmus Andersson and offseason acquisition MacKenzie Weegar.

Weaknesses: Huberdeau and Weegar are still adjusting to their new team and haven’t yet played up to expectations. The loss of 40-goal scorers Gaudreau and Tkachuk will still take a toll on their offense. Markstrom’s performance can get streaky. Their blueline has been whacked by injuries.

EDMONTON OILERS

Strengths: Oilers forwards Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are elite scorers in their prime. They’re well-complemented by sniper Evander Kane, the hard-working Zach Hyman and the versatile Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. They gained invaluable playoff experience by reaching the 2022 Western Conference Final.

Weaknesses: Offseason addition Jack Campbell has done little thus far to address their goaltending concerns. They have a decent first-pairing defense in Darnell Nurse and Tyson Barrie but not much beyond them unless Evan Bouchard steps up. The secondary scoring depth still drops sharply beyond McDavid and Draisaitl.

MONTREAL CANADIENS

Strengths: The Canadiens have a promising top line of young guns Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield and Kirby Dach. They’re getting better-than-expected goaltending from Jake Allen and Sam Montembeault. Kaiden Guhle and Jordan Harris show potential as top-four defensemen. Head coach Martin St. Louis is doing a fine job getting the most out of this roster.

Weaknesses: They’re still a rebuilding club and those promising kids are still on a learning curve. While they’re off to a better-than-expected start to this season, they still have glaring defensive issues. There’s not much reliable scoring punch beyond their first line. They’re still a long shot to reach the playoffs.

OTTAWA SENATORS

Strengths: The Senators have a talented core of young talent led by Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stutzle, Josh Norris and Drake Batherson. They augmented this group by adding skilled veterans like Claude Giroux and Alex DeBrincat. Acquiring Cam Talbot gives them a more reliable starting goalie. Jake Sanderson shows potential as a top-four defenseman.

Weaknesses: They’re having trouble playing up to the hype generated by their off-season acquisitions. The Senators are lacking experienced depth on their blueline and checking lines. They also need a reliable backup for Talbot.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

Strengths: Led by superstar forwards Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares, the Toronto Maple Leafs possess two lethal scoring lines. Their blueline is getting a welcome boost in Timothy Liljegren rejoining Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie.

Weaknesses: It’s the same old story: goaltending and defensive depth. Oft-injured offseason pickup Matt Murray has been limited to one game between the pipes. The absence of sidelined defenseman Jake Muzzin is a concern while aging rearguard Mark Giordano seems to have lost a step.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS

Strengths: The Canucks possess plenty of scoring talent in J.T. Miller, Bo Horvat, Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser. Thatcher Demko has shown in the past that he has the ability to be among the league’s best goalies. They have the capability to overcome a poor start to a season.

Weaknesses: Their defensive game is terrible, leading to blown leads in several games thus far. There isn’t much reliable talent on their blueline beyond Quinn Hughes. Demko’s been struggling this season and cannot offset his teammates’ poor play in their own zone.

WINNIPEG JETS

Strengths: These Jets have lots of firepower with Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Blake Wheeler, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Nikolaj Ehlers. Rookie Cole Perfetti is showing promise as a top-six winger. Former Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck remains a workhorse between the pipes.

Weaknesses: Their core players have a tendency to be inconsistent and at times they have underachieved. Once a strength, the depth of their defense corps in recent years has been questionable. That’s made Hellebuyck one of the most overworked goalies in the league.

ANALYSIS

Frankly, I don’t see any of this season’s Canadian teams possessing sufficient depth necessary to end the country’s Cup drought. Nevertheless, I’ll hazard a guess and give the nod to the Oilers as having the best chance of winning hockey’s ultimate prize.

McDavid and Draisaitl demonstrated last season that they can carry a team on a deep playoff run. That’s something the core players on the other clubs have yet to do.










Tales of NHL Halloween Horror 2022

Tales of NHL Halloween Horror 2022

It’s Halloween again, folks, when kids prepare for trick or treating while we entertain ourselves with scary stories involving ghosts, ghouls, and other macabre creatures.

With the NHL finally returning to a normal regular-season calendar for the first time since 2019, it’s also a time when struggling teams face the horrifying prospect that their playoff dreams could be coming undone.

We start with the Vancouver Canucks, whose strong second-half performance after stumbling through the first two months of last season saw them remain in the playoff chase until the final week of the schedule. Any hope of building on that effort entering this season has quickly fallen apart after going winless in their first seven games.

The Canucks’ woes sparked grumbling among their followers, with one fan tossing a jersey on the ice in disgust during a loss at home to the Buffalo Sabres. It also sparked speculation over the future of head coach Bruce Boudreau, as well as reports of management warning some players that any changes could be with the roster rather than behind the bench.

Moving on to Columbus, the Blue Jackets made headlines this summer by signing superstar Johnny Gaudreau and re-signing winger Patrik Laine. Despite those moves, the Jackets have won just three of their first nine games.

The gifted but oft-injured Laine missed six games with an elbow injury. Gaudreau, meanwhile, has held up his end with eight points but it hasn’t been enough to improve his club’s anemic offense and porous goaltending.

In Nashville, the Predators kicked off the season with back-to-back wins over the San Jose Sharks in Prague. Since returning from their European excursion, they’ve managed just one win in their last seven contests.

Led by Roman Josi, Filip Forsberg, Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen, the Predators finished 13th last season in goals-per-game (3.20). As of Oct 29, they tumbled to 2.44 and 30th overall. Perhaps that jaunt overseas did more harm than good.

The Minnesota Wild enjoyed a franchise-best 113-point performance in 2021-22. Expectations were high that this season’s version could become a Stanley Cup contender. Instead, they’ve played sub-.500 hockey with a 3-4-1 record through their first eight games.

Inconsistent goaltending and defense were big issues early on. Veteran starter Marc-Andre Fleury was horrible in his first two games but has steadily improved since. The defense also got better after veterans Alex Goligoski and Jonas Brodin saw more playing time. Time will tell, however, whether these are signs of genuine improvement.

The St. Louis Blues were off to a fast start by winning their first three games. They’ve since dropped their last four, including blowing a 3-1 lead to the Montreal Canadiens in a 7-4 loss on Oct. 29.

A lack of discipline and focus has dogged the Blues in recent games. They’re taking undisciplined penalties and are making uncharacteristic mistakes with the puck that end up costing them on the scoreboard.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have also dropped four straight following a red-hot start that saw them tally six goals in each of their first four wins. Their offense has since dried up as they managed just one goal in each of their last three defeats.

Losing sniper Jake Guentzel to a head injury for four games certainly didn’t help, but a team with superstars such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin managed just six goals during those four losses while giving up 16. Their special-team play was terrible during that stretch.

And then there’s the Toronto Maple Leafs. Entering this season with their fans hopeful of an end to their long Stanley Cup drought, they’ve lurched to a 4-4-1 record. Three of those losses came to lesser teams like the Canadiens, Arizona Coyotes and San Jose Sharks.

Led by Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander, the Leafs are usually among the league’s highest-scoring teams. Thus far, their goals-per-game average of 2.67 ranks 28th overall. Matthews, the two-time Richard Trophy winner and last season’s Hart Trophy winner following his 60-goal performance, has just two goals thus far.

There’s enough time remaining in this season for these teams to reverse their sagging fortunes and climb up the standings. For some of them, however, what we’re seeing now could foreshadow what could become a disappointing outcome to this season.










Remembering the 1972 Summit Series

Remembering the 1972 Summit Series

I’ve been a hockey fan since 1970. Over the past 52 years, I’ve seen many great, memorable Stanley Cup playoff series and international tournaments.

As a Montreal Canadiens fan, I’ve watched my club reach the Stanley Cup Final 10 times and win hockey’s holy grail eight times. I have also enjoyed exciting series’ involving other teams.

Being a Canadian, I’ve been thrilled by our men’s and women’s teams’ success on the international stage.

Of all my wonderful hockey moments as a fan, nothing compares to the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union.

1972 Summit Series (NHL.com).

To this day, the emotions I felt back then as a nine-year-old hockey fan in Nova Scotia still resonate with me 50 years later.

Plenty of ink has been spilled and miles of videotape used to evoke how that series changed the game, how it made the NHL a better league by opening it up to the world, moving it toward today’s fast-paced, highly-skilled product played by its well-trained athletes.

Those changes are very apparent when comparing today’s game with the videos of the Summit Series. The play back then isn’t really all that great, the skills seem at times rudimentary, the pace sometimes plodding. We occasionally see some great passing, skating, scoring and saves.

For fans used to today’s style of play, who have no memory of the Summit Series, it can seem a rather boring affair with occasional bursts of excitement.

To those of us who lived through that series, however, that was hockey as played by the world’s best. It was what we were used to.

What makes the memories of that series so strong for me was the uniqueness of that series and of the time and circumstances under which it occurred.

As has been well-documented, this was the first time Canada’s top professionals were taking on the Soviets’ best. While Canadians laid claim to hockey as “our game,” we hadn’t won at the amateur level in international play for two decades by that point. The Soviets had dominated at the World Championships and the Olympics.

Canadian professionals were barred from participating in those tournaments. So we as a nation of hockey fans dismissed the Soviets’ accomplishments. Sure, they could beat our best amateurs, but they’d never faced our professionals.

We were so certain the NHL stars (who were all Canadian back then) would mop the floor with the Soviets that we were smug about our chances when this series was announced.

I knew about the series thanks to the sports section in our newspapers and the supper hour news. No 24-hour sports channels or internet coverage back then. Being a kid, I only knew a little about the geopolitics of the time. The Soviet Union were the bad guys and we Canadians were the good guys because they didn’t believe in freedom and we did, or at least that was the simplest narrative the adults in my life used to explain it to me.

Because of the Cold War and the so-called “Iron Curtain”, the Soviet players were a mystery to us. We certainly knew every member of Team Canada’s roster.

I was thrilled that my hero, Ken Dryden, was part of the team as well as his fellow Canadiens such as Yvan Cournoyer, Frank and Pete Mahovlich, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe. I knew very well who Phil and Tony Esposito were, as well as Jean Ratelle and Rod Gilbert. Paul Henderson and Ron Ellis weren’t big stars but I knew them because they played for my second-favorite team at the time, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

I was disappointed that Bobby Orr’s knee would keep him from this tournament and that Bobby Hull wasn’t selected because he’d jumped to the rival World Hockey Association earlier that year. Nevertheless, we all knew that it wouldn’t matter because the Canadians had enough stars to win this series eight straight.

Of course, it didn’t happen like that at all. The Canadians had a 1-2-1 record after the first four games on home ice. I was as stunned and upset by the outcome as everyone else I knew. We couldn’t believe how our best players were being outclassed by the Soviets. It didn’t look good heading over to Moscow for the final four games.

And yet, somewhere along the way, we didn’t give up on “our boys”. Even when they fell 5-4 in Game 5 and were on the brink of losing the series, me and everyone I knew felt they could pull it off. Win Game 6, and they could tie the series in Game 7. Win that one, and it’s winner-take-all in Game 8.

Given my age, my parents only allowed me to watch the first two periods of the games in Canada. Games 5, 7 and 8 were on school days so I got to see the third period when I came home and then saw the first two periods during the rebroadcast that evening.

The critical Game 6 was on a Sunday and it was the only one I got to see aired in its entirety in real time because it was broadcast in the afternoon in Nova Scotia.

That game, the one broadcaster Foster Hewitt called “do or die” was the most nerve-wracking for me. Dryden, my hero, had not played well in his two games in Canada. I remember my dad complaining before the game that they should’ve started Tony Esposito. If they lost this one, the Soviets would take the series and the final two games would be meaningless.

My entire family watched that game that afternoon. That was unusual because my father was a die-hard baseball and CFL football fan who only had a mild interest in hockey. The only sport my mother enjoys is curling. My sister never had any interest in sports at all. And yet, there we were, riveted to the action beaming on our black and white TV from an arena with a strange name in Moscow.

This series by that point had become something more than hockey. It became more about our national identity. Canadians had a huge inferiority complex back then when it came to comparing ourselves to other countries, which is probably inevitable given our superpower neighbor to the south. However, the one thing we knew for certain was that we were the best at hockey.

And now, it appeared we were on the verge of losing that. Phil Esposito would later describe the series as more than a hockey tournament but something that evolved into a clash of cultures and nations. “It was our society against their society,” he said.

Those who have no memories of the Cold War cannot understand what that felt like. We had been told the Soviets were bent on conquering and enslaving the world with communism. They were the bad guys and our country, along with the other NATO nations, were the good guys.

To lose to the Soviets was unthinkable. It just couldn’t happen. And yet, it seemed like it was going to happen.

That’s what makes the Summit Series so memorable for those of us who lived through that time and watched that series. What was simply supposed to be a friendly tournament between the two best hockey-playing nations in the world became, for Canadians, part of the act of the Cold War playing out on the ice.

Games 6, 7 and 8 stand out for me and I think most Canadians who watched that series. Team Canada battled back to win all three by one-goal margins with Henderson scoring the winning goals in each contest. Dryden was rock-solid in Game 6 and prevailed in Game 8 despite giving up five goals in two periods.

Henderson’s winner in Game 8 remains the greatest goal I’ve ever seen. Not because it was done in a particularly skillful manner. Henderson picked up a rebound in front of the Russian net, took two whacks at it and managed to tuck it under Vladislav Tretiak for the winner.

It was the drama of the thing. The Canadians were down 5-3 entering the third period. Phil Esposito cut the Soviet lead to 5-4. Cournoyer tied it midway through the period.

I missed Esposito’s goal because that was a school day. Unlike other schools in Canada, our principal didn’t allow us to watch the game, though he was kind enough to update the score over the PA system as the game progressed.

It was 5-4 when I got home. My mother had the game on TV in the living room and was listening to it while she was working in the kitchen. She was skipping her soap operas (which she called “my stories”) to keep track of a hockey game.

I was able to see the drama of the remainder of that period. Henderson’s goal was so unexpected, the result of a broken play after he had fallen behind the net, with Hewitt’s practically screaming, “They Score! Hen-der-son! Has Scored For Canada!”

At that moment, I leaped from my chair and howled with delight. My mother ran in from the kitchen to see the replay. We both stood there in our living room watching the rest of the period play out.

The good guys had won. Canada was still the best.

What followed was a tremendous sense of joy, then relief, and underneath it all, the knowledge that hockey was never going to be the same after this.

Over the course of that series, I and millions of Canadian grew to admire and respect the Soviet stars.

Vladislav Tretiak was a terrific goaltender, especially in the first four games in Canada. Valeri Kharlamov was a dazzling, creative forward. Alexander Yakushev played a style similar to the high-scoring Phil Esposito. Boris Mikhailov was a physical, agitating forward who could match up well against any of his opponents.

After that, we knew our country could never take our supposed domination over the game of hockey for granted ever again.

There would be future international tournaments involving Canada’s best professionals with all the focus being on how they measured up against the Soviets. There would be dominating series wins on both sides as well as closely-fought ones. The 1987 Canada Cup best-of-three final was perhaps the best-played of the lot. Many of the best Soviet players from that series – Igor Larionov, Vyacheslav Fetisov, Sergei Makarov, Igor Kravchuk, Valeri Kamensky, Sergei Nemchinov – would go on to NHL careers.

Meanwhile, other countries were improving and challenging Canada and the Soviets. A trickle of European talent to the NHL in the 1970s became a flood in the 1990s with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. More American players, some inspired by “The Miracle on Ice” in 1980 or the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, joined their ranks.

Canadian players today still make up the majority in the NHL but only just. The top talent consists of players from a number of hockey-playing nations and the game is better because of it.

There will never be another international tournament like the ground-breaking 1972 Summit Series. It has shaped hockey over the past 50 years and its echoes are still being felt today. The experience of watching it unfold during that distant September and feeling all the emotions that came with it will stay with me for the rest of my life.










2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs – First Round Predictions

2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs – First Round Predictions

Well, it’s that time again when those of us who make a living covering the NHL attempt to predict which teams will win each postseason series. We’ll look at the stats, try to put personal biases aside, and make our best guesses.

Some years, we’ll look really shrewd by getting more selections right than wrong. In others, we’ll end up looking silly as our predictions go off the rails.

That’s the beauty of playoff competition. Some series will unfold as we expect but others will see upsets that few saw coming. The Montreal Canadiens’ underdog run to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final serves as a perfect example.

I’ve never taken this exercise too seriously and just have fun with this. No matter how much player and team info I digest, no matter how I crunch the stats data, it still comes down to gut feeling.

Without further ado, here’s my brief preview and predictions for the opening round of the Stanley Cup Final. Feel free to offer up your take in the comments section below.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

FLORIDA PANTHERS – WASHINGTON CAPITALS

Both clubs lack proven playoff goaltending. Nevertheless, the Panthers potent offense will be difficult to contain, especially Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin remains questionable with an upper-body injury. Panthers in five.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS – TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

The back-to-back defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning remains a dangerous team. Nevertheless, the high-scoring Leafs are long overdue to win a playoff series. Time for Auston Matthews and company to finally prove themselves in postseason play. Leafs in seven.

CAROLINA HURRICANES – BOSTON BRUINS

Carolina starter Frederik Andersen is questionable with a lower-body injury while the Bruins lack experienced playoff goaltending. Both teams possess two solid scoring lines. The Hurricanes’ league-leading penalty kill could be the difference-maker here. Hurricanes in six.

NEW YORK RANGERS – PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

A clash between a rising power and an aging one that hasn’t won a playoff series since 2018. Never take Penguins stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin lightly. Rangers starter Igor Shesterkin has little playoff experience but he should carry his club to victory. Rangers in six.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

COLORADO AVALANCE – NASHVILLE PREDATORS

Career-best years from Roman Josi, Filip Forsberg, Matt Duchene and goalie Juuse Saros carried the Predators into the playoffs. Saros, however, is questionable with a leg injury. The Avs struggled down the stretch but stars like Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar will get the job done. Avalanche in five.

MINNESOTA WILD – ST. LOUIS BLUES

This could be the most entertaining series of the opening round. The Wild and Blues were in a tight race for second place in the Central. Minnesota has experienced goaltending in Marc-Andre Fleury and Cam Talbot but the Blues’ powerful offense will carry them to victory. Blues in seven.

CALGARY FLAMES – DALLAS STARS

The Stars are a team in transition as younger players like Jake Oettinger and Jason Robertson take on more important roles. They’ll put up a good fight but won’t be any match for the Flames’ well-balanced game led by Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk. Flames in five.

EDMONTON OILERS – LOS ANGELES KINGS

The Oilers won 26 of their last 38 games under interim bench boss Jay Woodcroft. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl provide the Oilers with a strong scoring punch. The rebuilding Kings will feel the absence of veteran defenseman Drew Doughty. Oilers in five.










Remembering Guy Lafleur

Remembering Guy Lafleur

I’m a Montreal Canadiens fan. I’ve been one since 1971 when a then-unknown goaltender named Ken Dryden backstopped them to what is known in Canadiens lore as their Miracle Stanley Cup.

Dryden was the player who made me a Canadiens fan and remained my hero throughout the ’70s. However, it was his teammate, Guy Lafleur, who made me believe in hockey magic.

Along with Maurice “Rocket” Richard and Jean Beliveau, Lafleur was part of the trio of the Canadiens’ great Quebec-born superstars that would bring the club 18 Cups in 35 years between 1944 and 1979.

Montreal Canadiens Hall-of-Famer Guy Lafleur (NHL.com).

Lafleur joined the Canadiens the season after Beliveau retired in 1971. He was the first-overall pick that year, and while he had a good rookie season, he wasn’t the dominant player that many Canadiens fans expected him to become.

He followed up with two more decent but unspectacular seasons, prompting suggestions that Canadiens general manager Sam Pollock had blundered by taking Lafleur over Marcel Dionne, who had established himself as a scoring star with the Detroit Red Wings during that period.

Then came 1974-75. Lafleur ditched his helmet and blossomed into the superstar that Pollock knew he would become. He went on to become the first player in NHL history to score 50 goals and 100 points in six straight seasons.

Lafleur’s last name in English means the flower, and that was his nickname throughout his career. This flower, however, was no shrinking violet. His offensive exploits earned him the moniker Le Demon Blonde by the Montreal media.

He was the engine that drove the Canadiens dynasty of the late-70s. Winning four straight Stanley Cups from 1976 to 1979, they were one of the most dominant teams in NHL history.

The late 1970s was a great time to be a Canadiens fan. The club was so powerful, so dominant, that you knew they were going to win every game. It was actually a shock during those rare occasions when they didn’t especially in 1976-77 when they lost just eight out of 80 regular-season games and only twice in the playoffs. The Stanley Cup wasn’t something we hoped for like fans of other teams. It was something we expected. Nothing less would suffice.

The Canadiens of that era was loaded with talent that eventually became enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Dryden, Yvan Cournoyer, Larry Robinson, Bob Gainey, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, Jacques Lemaire and Steve Shutt formed the core of those championship years.

Standing above them was Lafleur. A three-time winner of the Art Ross Trophy and the Lester Pearson Award (now the Ted Lindsay Award), a two-time winner of the Hart Memorial Trophy and winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1976-77.

Of all those great stars on the Canadiens, it was Lafleur who earned the undying love of the club’s fans. During his prime from ’74-’75 to ’79-’80, he was the most exciting player in the game.

It wasn’t that Lafleur was a high-scoring forward. It was how he scored and controlled the play that made him the world’s best player during those dynasty years.

Long-blonde hair streaming as he raced with the puck, Lafleur was an impressive package of explosive offensive skill. He possessed blazing speed, dazzling stickhandling ability and a hard, accurate shot. The man was like an on-ice magician, conjuring plays that delighted fans and frustrated opponents.

Taking the puck from behind his own net, Lafleur would skate end-to-end leaving defenders gasping in his wake. He literally lifted fans out of their seats in anticipation of a goal. You knew you were going to see something special whenever he touched the puck. Fans chanted, “Guy! Guy! Guy!” following one of his spectacular goals.

Defenders found Lafleur difficult to contain. If he didn’t think he had a decent scoring chance upon gaining the opposition’s zone, he’d curl away to allow his teammates to catch up, looking to send an accurate pass to an open man that would lead to a better scoring opportunity. Dashing down his wing, rather than drive for the net or unleash his powerful slapshot, he’d sometimes carry the puck behind the net, head up, looking all the time for an open teammate.

No finer example of Lafleur’s greatness was Game 7 of the 1979 semifinals against the Bruins. Down 3-1 entering the third period, he got the primary assists on goals by Mark Napier and Lapointe as the Habs tied the score.

The Bruins got a late goal to regain the lead and seemed on the verge of ending the Canadiens’ championship streak until they took a bench minor at 17.26. Still, if they could kill that penalty, they would’ve probably won the game and ended Montreal’s championship run.

With 1:22 left in the game, Lafleur took the puck in his own zone. Circling away from a defender, he dashed up the ice in what appeared to be one of his electrifying end-to-end rushes. Instead, he passed ahead to Lemaire at the blueline, who took three quick strides into the Bruins zone and dropped it back to a streaking Lafleur, who unleashed a blast that beat Bruins goalie Gilles Gilbert to tie the game.

Fifty-five seconds left in the penalty. A minute and 27 seconds left in regulation time. Boston 4, Montreal 3. Lafleur…coming out rather gingerly on the right side. He gives in to Lemaire, back to Lafleur…HE SCOOOREESSS!” That was the call from the great Canadiens play-by-play man Danny Gallivan. It’s forever etched in my memory.

I was 16-years-old and delirious with joy. The dynasty lived and Lafleur was its savior. Up to that point, I was fearful the Canadiens would be eliminated. After that goal, I had no doubt they were going to win.

Sure enough, Yvon Lambert scored in overtime for the Canadiens to send them to the 1979 Final and their fourth-and-final Stanley Cup. However, it is Lafleur’s goal, the one that rescued the Habs from elimination, that is remembered to this day.

It was Lafleur’s greatest game, and the last great one he had in Stanley Cup playoff action.

After winning their fourth straight Cup, the dynasty ended after that season. Dryden, Cournoyer and Lemaire retired. Scotty Bowman stepped down as head coach. Sam Pollock retired as GM in 1978. Lapointe and Savard were eventually traded away.

While still an effective scorer, injuries began to hamper Lafleur in the early-80s as the club began to shift away from fire wagon hockey to a more defensive system. He reportedly clashed with Lemaire, now the head coach, over his declining ice time.

Lafleur retired in 1984 but staged a comeback with the New York Rangers in 1988-89. He played two more seasons with the Quebec Nordiques, becoming a mentor to a then-promising young forward named Joe Sakic. He put up respectable numbers but age and injuries robbed him of his scoring brilliance. “The Flower” retired for good in 1991.

By that point, I had finally grown to accept that the dynasty years were well and truly over for the Canadiens. Since winning their last Stanley Cup in 1993, I’ve learned to accept that they’re just another club (albeit the one with the richest history) in a 32-team league. Dynasties are a thing of the past, and I wonder if I’ll ever see the Canadiens win the Cup again in my lifetime.

I count myself fortunate that I’ve seen the Canadiens win the Cup eight times, with four of those thanks to Lafleur. His place in hockey history and Canadiens lore is secure.

Thirty-eight years after Lafleur retired from the Canadiens, he remains their all-time leader in assists (728) and points (1,245) and second to Richard with 518 goals. He’s also tied with Steve Shutt for most goals in a season with 60 and their all-time single-season leader with 136 points.

Lafleur was the greatest player on one of the greatest teams in NHL history.

He was magic.










Maple Leafs Need Matthews At His Best To Achieve Overdue Playoff Success

Maple Leafs Need Matthews At His Best To Achieve Overdue Playoff Success

In his sixth NHL season, Auston Matthews is on a torrid goal-scoring pace not seen in the league for some time.

With 58 goals in 69 games entering Sunday’s game against the New York Islanders, the 24-year-old Toronto Maple Leafs center is poised to become the first player to score 60 goals in a season since Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos in 2011-12. With seven games remaining in the schedule, he also has a shot at becoming the first player to reach 65 goals since Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin in 2007-08.

Matthews has already secured his spot in Leafs history by establishing their single-season goal-scoring record. Having become the first player in franchise history to win the Maurice Richard Trophy with 41 goals in 52 games last season, he seems likely to take home that honor for the second straight year.

Thanks to his goal-scoring exploits, Matthews must be considered a serious challenger for the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. He could become the first Leaf to win that award since Teeder Kennedy in 1955.

Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews (NHL Images).

Leafs Nation is giddy over Matthews’ performance and they have every right to be. He’s been a bonafide star since winning the Calder Memorial Trophy as rookie of the year in 2016-17. Injuries prevented him from reaching the 50-goal plateau earlier in his career but his offensive brilliance was never in doubt.

This season, however, Matthews has taken his game to a higher level, establishing himself as his generation’s best goal scorer. Of his 58 goals, 43 were scored at even strength. He’s their puck possession leader with a shot-attempts percentage of 59.8. The Leafs center has also improved his defensive game, tied for the league lead in takeaways (86) with Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. He’s also solid in the faceoff circle, winning 56.6 percent of his draws.

The problem is, none of Matthews’ accomplishments this season will matter if the Leafs fail to get past the opening round of the playoffs.

Matthews could win the Hart Trophy and the Ted Lindsay Award along with the Richard Trophy when the NHL Awards are handed out this summer and it won’t mean squat to Leafs fans if they suffer another first-round exit.

Even if the Leafs advance past the first round for the first time since 2004, Matthews’ regular-season efforts won’t count for much if they get bounced in the second round. Nothing less than at least reaching the Eastern Conference Final will satisfy long-suffering Leafs fans, and even then, there will be some grumbling that they didn’t go all the way and win the Stanley Cup.

Everyone knows the Leafs’ last Cup win was in 1967. It’s the longest championship drought in league history. Generations of Leafs fans have been born without seeing their favorite team win hockey’s holy grail. Every year, the pressure increases, especially when the Leafs have rosters with the capability of ending that streak.

The Leafs dominated their all-Canadian division during last season’s COVID-shortened campaign. Squaring off in the opening round against the lowly Montreal Canadiens, they held a 3-1 stranglehold on the series before the Canadiens roared back with three straight wins to take the series, sending the Leafs and their fans into an offseason of bitter disappointment.

Being among the Leafs’ core players, Matthews caught his fair share of criticism from Toronto fans and pundits. For good reason, too, as he was held to just one goal and five points by the Canadiens checkers and goaltender Carey Price.

Matthews’ stellar performance this season has served as a balm to soothe the jangled nerves of Leafs fans, but it’s also raised expectations. With the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs approaching, he will be expected to pilot his club toward that long-overdue championship glory. John Tavares may be the team captain, but the burden of leadership is truly on Matthews’ shoulders.

Yes, other members of the Leafs’ core – Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly, Jack Campbell – must also step up. But Matthews’ showstopping production this season has thrust him into a much brighter spotlight. He will be expected to carry this club to its first opening-round series victory in nearly 20 years and its first Stanley Cup in over a half-century.

If Matthews isn’t at his very best this spring, everything he accomplished during the regular season will be overshadowed by his postseason failure and that of his teammates.

The calls for change from the restless denizens of Leafs Nation will grow louder, perhaps leading to a change in management or coaching, maybe even a roster shakeup. Matthews probably wouldn’t be part of the latter but who can say what could happen following another discouraging postseason finish in Toronto?

All that can be avoided, or at least the odds of it happening greatly reduced if Matthews’ outstanding regular-season effort carries over into the 2022 postseason.

Failure is no longer an option for Matthews and the Leafs. He and his teammates must rise to the occasion this spring or remain damned as playoff choke artists.