Leafs can look back for inspiration

GEORGE GROSS

, Last Updated: 8:39 AM ET

History has been known to repeat itself.

And sometimes the so-called great prognosticators are nothing more than students of history, or just lucky.

Back in 1959, I predicted in print that the Maple Leafs would make the playoffs, and stuck with that throughout the year, even when they were sitting in last place on March 14, seven points out of fourth place and the final playoff slot in the then six-team NHL, with just five games to play.

They did make the playoffs that spring.

So, what has that to do with the 2007 Leafs, you may ask? Only that the current Leafs situation reminds me very much of the 1958-59 team, and I sense these Leafs will also make the playoffs, regardless of the results of the weekend games against the speedy Sabres.

It was 48 years ago that the New York Rangers were sitting comfortably in fourth place and had two games remaining against the Leafs. Toronto easily won the first game 5-0 with Dick Duff and Frank Mahovlich each scoring two goals.

The following night in New York, the Leafs held off the Rangers to win 6-5 on George Armstrong's hat trick.

That vaulted them past the Detroit Red Wings and into fifth place and narrowed their deficit to three points behind the Rangers with three games left.

The excitement was only just beginning.

The following Thursday, the Leafs beat the Habs in the Forum to creep to within one point of the Rangers before the Broadway Blueshirts topped Detroit to make it three again.

That set up a wild final weekend of the regular schedule.

The Leafs beat the third-place Black Hawks on Saturday night and moved again to within one point of the Rangers and even seasoned newsmen were getting caught up in the excitement of the deciding Sunday games: Toronto at Detroit, Montreal at New York; the Rangers in control of their destiny and the Leafs playing like a team possessed.

The New York game started at 7 p.m., the Leafs at 8. Punch Imlach nearly had his first heart attack when he found out in the Red Wings office that New York had taken the lead. A few minutes later, he was buoyed by the news that Jean Beliveau and Dickie Moore had scored for the Habs.

In Detroit, things didn't start off well for the Leafs. The Red Wings took a 2-0 first-period lead, but Larry Regan and Bobby Baun scored to tie it up. Norm Ullman, who later became a Leaf, scored for Detroit, but Carl Brewer drew the Leafs level again. Regan and Wings defenceman Marcel Pronovost exchanged goals before news came in that the Rangers had lost 4-2, putting the Leafs' fate in their own hands.

Then came the dramatic moment. Regan won a crucial faceoff in the Detroit zone, skated around Red Kelly and passed the puck to Duff, who netted the go-ahead goal. The late Billy Harris subsequently tipped in a Baun shot to make the final 6-4 and the Leafs had made the playoffs, just as Imlach -- and I -- had predicted.

I have a similar feeling this year, even though the odds again are stacked against the Leafs making it.

GROSSLY ABBREVIATED

NHL vice-president and former Leafs general manager Jim Gregory suffered a light stroke recently. He's recuperating at home. Get well soon, Jim, your friends are pulling for you ... The reason Eddie Shack did not attend the 1967 celebration at the ACC a couple of weeks ago is understandable -- he said he was in "Goodbye". Well, some people refer to that part of the world as Dubai, but Eddie is Eddie ... Beliveau will turn 76 in a few weeks ... Larry Hillman is in such good shape, he looks as if he could help the Leafs defence now ... Former NHL heavyweight champion John Ferguson Sr. attended the 1967 Leafs celebration on Thursday at the Convention Centre. Asked about a fight with Shack, Fergie cracked: "Eddie couldn't lick a stamp."


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