North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

I miss the playoffs, Part One: When Tucker’s shoulder met Peca’s knee

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First of an ongoing series

The other day, Down Goes Brown had a post about the 2002 Leafs/Islanders playoff series. It’d been a while since I thought about those days, back when the Leafs were surprisingly good for a stretch and spent a lot of dough.

These days, a decade later, the Leafs are so different it boggles the mind. They’ve been out of the playoffs since 2004 – long enough for me to go through J-school without seeing a Leaf playoff game. Its been eight years and, well, things don’t look good for year nine.

But in those days things were better. Remember when people used to compare the Leafs to the Yankees? When they said it wasn’t fair that one team could spend so much while others – in Atlanta, in Columbus, in Nashville, in Edmonton – had a hell of a time competing?

There was a ton a of talent back in the days. In net is Curtis Joseph, maybe the best Leaf goalie of my lifetime (admittedly, it’s not a long list). Up front was an aging Gary Roberts: the favorite player of a friend who lived up the street I used to play street hockey with. There was Mats Sundin, maybe still in his peak and Alex Mulginy, past his but still a talented scorer. And there was colorful players: Domi and Tucker whose jerseys were all over the place at my high school.

That year the Leafs were one of the best teams in the NHL: they finished with 100 points, enough for second in the Eastern Conference, and 43 wins. This was smack in the middle of a nice stretch for the Leafs regular season totals: they’ve pick up more wins in the next couple seasons, and in 2000 actually won their division, the only time that’s happened in my lifetime (again, a short list: that’s the only time it’s happened since 1963). In some ways, this was a great time to be a Leaf fan.

But I honestly don’t remember enjoying them all that much. If anything, I remember being frustrated come playoff time: after making the conference finals in 1999 – and running straight smack into Dominik Hasek’s greatest postseason run – they fell apart against New Jersey in two straight semi-final series. No matter what happened in the regular season, it felt like the shoe was going to drop.

And in 2002, maybe the shoe was going to fall quickly. Despite all the names listed above, there weren’t too many standout performances through the regular season. Sundin scored 80 points with 41 goals and next on the list was Darcy Tucker: 59 points and 24 goals. This wasn’t exactly firewagon hockey. Indeed, only five players scored more than 20 goals. And going into the first-round series against the Islanders, I don’t think anyone expected a high-scoring series.

Through three games, they didn’t get it: Toronto took the first two, 3-1 and 2-0, then New York won game three in a blowout, 6-1. Game four was where I remember it kicking off.

Alexi Yashin opened the scoring for New York, a high shot over Joseph early in the first. Late in the period, Toronto tied it up on a Alexander Mogilny one-timer, a snap from Chris Osgood’s left side. Toronto had more chances in the second, including one where Mogilny had a breakaway, but they didn’t score until late in the period.

The Islanders pressed in the third, eventually scoring on a power play to tie the game with about seven minutes left. A couple minutes later, Roman Hamrlik rocketed one from the blue past past Joseph, giving them the lead. Right after that, the Leafs tied it up on a Shayne Corson wraparound.

Cue Brian McCabe.

The Leafs were pressing late, with about three minutes left when Yashin took the puck out of his own end. With two Leafs on him, and Tucker and Travis Green stuck deep in the Islanders end – Tucker actually lying on the ice – Yashin threw the puck across the ice to Shawn Bates. Bates rushed to the net, chased by McCabe and right in front of the net, McCabe dives, takes out Bates skates with his stick and it’s a penalty shot. In a tied playoff game, with two and a half minutes left.

On ESPN2, the color guy says – and I quote – “He doesn’t care about this, he’s already stopped four penalty shots this season. This doesn’t bother Curtis Joseph.”

Bates scores, going high over Joseph’s blocker. Final score: 4-3, New York.

Back in Toronto for game five, things got ugly quick. Toronto opens up the scoring with two quick goals and the Islanders score one of their own as the period ends. Next period, McCabe scores on a blast from the point. He’ll add another before the period ends. After four Leaf goals, Osgood’s night ends. In comes future Islanders GM Garth Snow. After an Islander goal, Tucker scores one for the Leafs and it’s 5-2 heading to the third. The game ends, 6-3, a match that looked closer than it was. But that’s not what everyone remembers.

They remember the second period. I know I remember everything from that hit clearly, even what I was wearing at the time (jeans and a tee, natch). It’s early in the second, still a one-goal game, and New York’s Michael Peca was going along the boards, near the corner in his own end. He’d just passed the puck up and was a split-second behind the play (and the lead camera) when Tucker went low, bent over, and went full tilt into him: Peca’s knee was blown, his season was over and Tucker nonchalantly skated to the bench, showing less remorse than a professional hitman.

Needless to say, everyone I knew in high school loved that hit.

I remember it as the defining moment in a series that was long on dirt and short on actual moments. My dad calls it the dirtiest he’s ever seen and he’s someone who remembers where he was when Lanny McDonald scored against the Islanders in 1978.

I don’t know if I’d go that far – this past playoffs had it’s share of dirty series – but the hits were the most memorable parts: Tucker’s blow and another by Roberts, where I remember him basically shoving someone’s face into the boards at terminal velocity. I don’t think it’s unfair to say Tucker’s hit changed the game, if not the series: Toronto pulled away shortly after and won in seven games.

But there’s a flip side too: Joseph coughed up a Leafs lead in game four, not to mention McCabe showing his skill in snatching victory away (he’d do that again, too). Toronto slogged through seven games in this series, plus another seven against Ottawa before losing in six to Carolina, a series I remember for Arturs Irbe looking unstoppable in overtime (through the 2002 postseason, he’d finish with a 1.67 GAA and a .938 Save Percentage, pretty much the best stretch he’d ever have). If McCabe doesn’t drag down Bates, if Hamrlik’s blast doesn’t go in…

But what about the Islanders? That 2002 team was the high-water mark for a futile decade. And it shouldn’t have been that way, really. Look at the talent Mike Milbury drafted and traded away:

  • 1996: Zdeno Chara, J.P. Dumont,
  • 1997: Roberto Luongo
  • 1999: Tim Connolly

Not one of those players was on the 2002 roster. Indeed, Chara and a first round pick (used to take Jason Spezza) was traded to Ottawa for Yashin.With a better goalie, say Luongo, do the Islanders get past Toronto? More to the point, don’t they improve through the decade?

A lot has changed in 10 seasons. We all look on hits and the concussions they bring differently. Peca would join the Leafs not long after the hit and became friends with Tucker, which is kind of like hearing that Ben Wallace and Ron Artest are fishing buddies. The Islanders would keep making bad personell moves and never got out of the first round.

And the Leafs have finished out of contention now for eight years in a row, never getting as deep in the playoffs as they did in 2002.

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