SUNRISE, FLA. - As if the Maple Leafs weren’t hemorrhaging away their season on their own, Markham’s Stephen Weiss would like nothing better than to jab another dagger into the playoff hopes of the team he grew up rooting for.
When Weiss was a kid, he was at the SkyDome, presumably at a Blue Jays game, when Dougie Gilmour and the rest of Weiss’s beloved blue-and-white heroes were beaten in Game 7 of the 1993 semifinals by Wayne Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings just up the road at Maple Leaf Gardens. He admits the heart-wrenching loss caused his eyes to well up.
But there will be no tears shed by Weiss or the rest of the NHL if his upstart Florida Panthers prolong Toronto’s losing ways with a victory over the Leafs on Tuesday at the BankAtlantic Centre.
Entering the contest with 77 points, the Panthers find themselves five points up on the ninth-place team in the Eastern Conference standings. A win over Toronto would get Florida one step closer to clinching its first playoff spot since the ugly 2004-05 labour dispute.
If the Panthers do get in and the Leafs don’t, it would leave Toronto as the only NHL team not to reach the post-season in the post-lockout era.
Talk about a tale of two teams.
For his part, Weiss is not looking past the game on Tuesday. Of course, if he can accelerate the process by helping his team past the Leafs, well, it would be sweet.
“I enjoy beating them,” Weiss said on Monday. “I like when that happens so I can phone home and let my buddies have it.”
Buddies who are Leaf fans.
It’s hard to imagine, sure, but there is a real possibility that, by the time the regular season ends early next month, Toronto will have been unable to accomplish what teams like even the Columbus Blue Jackets and, potentially, the Panthers, have been able to do.
That is, make the playoffs at least once in the past seven seasons.
Should you be frustrated?
Should you be angry at watching your team play second fiddle to a long-time sad sack like the Panthers?
At the same time, as Maple Leafs v-p of hockey operations Dave Poulin points out, this is no time for knee-jerk reactions.
“Do you rip up the blue print and all the work you’ve done the past three-plus years because you’ve had a very challenging four weeks? Of course not,” Poulin said on Monday.
“We know it’s not the final product. We know there are pieces that still need to fit. But remember, just over four weeks ago, we were doing well and there was a lot of optimism about our team. That’s why you have to stay the course.”
Poulin has a point.
Back on Feb. 6, having just defeated the Edmonton Oilers 6-3, the Leafs were in sixth in the East with 62 points, just two behind fourth-place Pittsburgh and four back of third-place Philadelphia.
But a 2-1 loss to the Jets in raucous Winnipeg the following night was the start of a horrific 2-12-2 run that has fans talking more about lottery picks than playoff berths.
“I think what happened in Pittsburgh last week symbolizes our recent troubles,” Poulin said. “Tyler Bozak shoots the puck at an empty net and it ends up hitting Tim Connolly, who is falling to the ice, in the leg.”
As for the comparisons between the Leafs and Florida, Poulin said Panthers GM Dale Tallon was able to woo new faces like Brian Campbell and Tomas Fleischmann last summer “because he had much more cap space, he had to bring guys in just to get to the floor of the cap.”
Many of the new Panthers received four-year contracts. That’s good for now, but how good — or bad — will, say, Ed Jovanovski’s deal look in 2014-15 when he is 38 and his cap hit is $4.25 million US?
In the end, Leafs management still feels its blue print will be the more effective one in the long run.
For Weiss, on the other hand, there is an urgency to win now. And if it comes at the expense of the Leafs, all the better.