Before the Maple Leafs dream up next season’s syrupy slogan — remember ‘The Passion That Unites Us All’ and ‘Spirit Is Everything’ — the Chicago Blackhawks might hang a simple, yet ignominious tag on them that would make it a very long 82 games.
How does ‘Longest Active NHL Streak Without a Stanley Cup’ sound?
With their sweep of San Jose complete, home ice, great goaltending and good health, the Hawks must be considered the favourites in the Cup final against Philadelphia or Montreal. In other words, Toronto could be four Hawks wins away from inheriting the most lengthy jinx of 44 years, if not dramatically reversed this time next year.
For all the good that newest general manager Brian Burke seeks to do, his young and impressionable team would be reminded of that every day of 2010-11, if not already, that their once great franchise has been starved for silver since Sgt. Pepper was released.
Fair or not, they’ll be hammered with that each time they step on the ice or off the plane in a visiting city.
Hall of Fame defenceman Brian Leetch said the worst thing about being a New York Ranger prior to ending their tortuous 54-year wait for a Cup was hearing ‘Nineteen-forty!’ in his ear every game at Nassau Coliseum against the Islanders. Not to mention his team’s suspicion when the New Jersey Devils kept announcing 19,040 as their capacity at the old Brendan Byrne Arena.
The derisive ‘Sixty-seven’ chant and hand-clap sequence is already becoming a favourite taunt of the Leafs in the New York City area, where all three teams have now won championships. And of those younger NHL teams yet to win a Cup, eight can claim to have at least made the final, which the post-expansion Leafs can’t.
That’s not to say Chicago is sure to break its own string of failure, a year shy of a half century since Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita soared. The Flyers or Canadiens are quite capable of an upset, having already made their mark as seventh and eighth seeds, upstaging everyone else in the East en route to the conference final.
But events in the West unfolded much closer to the playoff script with the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds going through, Chicago losing the President’s Trophy to the Sharks by a hair.
The Leafs talk a lot about truculent scorers, but the Hawks have the real thing, with Dustin Byfuglien putting his stamp on the game every night, if not by his 6-foot-3, 246 pound dimensions, then by huge goals.
Let’s just say the Leafs have been living on borrowed time when it comes to lording it over the Hawks, a franchise that was its own worst enemy when ‘Dollar Bill’ Wirtz ran it old-school in the latter part of the 20th century.
The Leafs beat the first-place Hawks in the ’67 semi-finals, considered the bigger upset than the Cup win itself against Montreal. But this will be Chicago’s fourth trip to the final since ’67 and they did their best under tough circumstances in ’71 and ’73, losing to very powerful Habs teams. Mike Keenan staged an unlikely Cup run with the ’92 Hawks before they met a vintage Mario Lemieux.
The current edition of the Hawks is built to last, taking their lumps in missing the playoffs for five consecutive regular seasons, reaping top draft picks such as Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Brent Seabrook. They mirror Toronto in some ways, committing to a mean defence with a young Scandinavian goaltender.
But Toronto has nowhere near the offence and little overall to show in draft returns for being in the post-season poorhouse since the lockout.
Based upon the 2009-10 finish, the Leafs must pass six teams just to get an invite to the dance in 2011. The players don’t need to fight the ghosts of ’67, too.