Saturday, December 25, 2010
43 Years of Maple Leaf Frustration: 2003-04 Season
The Maple Leafs continued to be one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference as they were in a 3-way dog fight with the Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators for first place in the Northeast Division led once again by Mats Sundin who had a 75-point season and Ed Belfour who had 10 shutouts The Maple Leafs would fall one point short of a Division Title with a franchise record 103 points and a 45-24-10-3 record. The Leafs were just one point behind the Bruins who were led by Calder Trophy winner Andrew Raycroft and a point ahead of the Senators. They had the 4th best record in the NHL.
Leaf management was convinced that the team was a Cup contender and hoping to put themselves over the top the Leafs acquired future Hall of Famers Brian Leetch from the New York Rangers and Ron Francis from the Carolina Hurricanes, both of whom were proven playoff tested winners. In just 15 games with the Leafs Leetch would notch 15 points as Francis had 10 in 12 games. The costs of these two players were two prospects and 1st, 2nd and 4th round draft picks. During the offseason the Leafs had also added future Hall of Famer Joe Nieuwendyk who played well when his bad back didn't keep him out of the lineup. A very late addition was retired Calle Johansson who at 36 years old and out of shape couldn't play at this level. However, it showed the desire by management to advance in the playoffs.
In the playoffs the Leafs would first draw provincial rivals, the Ottawa Senators. After dropping Game 1 by a score of 4-2 the Leafs rebounded to win each of the next two games 2-0 as Eddie Belfour stopped a total of 68 shots. After a 4-1 loss in Game 4, the Leafs turned to Belfour again who stopped 21 shots in another 2-0 shutout win. Belfour looked to be heading for another shutout in Game 6, but the Senators rallied to win 2-1 in overtime to a force a 7th game. In Game 7 at the Air Canada Centre the Leafs would jump out to a 3-0 lead and never look back as they advanced to the second round with a 4-1 win.
In the second Round the Leafs would get off to a slow start as they dropped the first two games to the Philadelphia Flyers on the road. With the series shifting to Toronto the Leafs would come roaring back winning the next two to even the series. However in Game 5 their Philadelphia Horror continued as they were blow out 7-2. Needing a win at home to even the series the Leafs rallied with a pair of goals to force overtime in the 3rd Period. However, Jeremy Roenick would end the Leafs season with a goal at 7:39 of overtime to give the Flyers a 3-2 win (below). It would be the last playoff game played by the Maple Leafs for a very long time.
The Maple Leafs were one of the least prepared teams for the lockout that eliminated the 2004-05 season. Their lineup was aging and their payroll was over $60 million, one of the highest in the NHL. They had 5 players earning over $5 million. Over the previous season the team had repeatedly traded draft picks for veterans hoping to advance in the playoffs. Leaf management were gambling/hoping that the owners would fail to introduce an effective salary cap which would have allowed them to continue to stock players through free agency rather than the draft. They failed to recognize the resolve of their fellow owners.