In October 2017, the NHL will expand to 31 with the addition of the Vegas Golden Knights. For fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, expansion and the NHL is something they never will forget.
From 1942-43 thru the 1966-67 seasons, the NHL featured just 6 teams (Toronto, New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks). During those seasons the Maple Leafs won 9 Stanley Cups (they won the Stanley Cup two other times before that in 1931-32 and 1941-42) including the final season before expansion.
During the 1967-68 season, the NHL doubled its size with the first of many seasons where expansion teams were added. Perhaps this brings up bad memories for fans of the Maple Leafs, as the franchise has not won or even reached another Stanley Cup Final since the start of expansion.
Since winning the final Stanley Cup in the 1966-67 season, the Maple Leafs have gone no further than reaching the conference finals, which they have done on four separate occasions (last coming in 2001-02). To make matters worse for Leafs fans, they have only reached the postseason once since the NHL canceled the 2004-05 season.
Bringing up the 2013 postseason appearance to Leafs fans is particularly excruciating. Perhaps even more so than the 7 years they had gone since making a playoff appearance. They faced the mighty Boston Bruins, who were 2 years removed from winning the 2011 Stanley Cup. Trailing 3-1 in the series, the Leafs won a pair of 2-1 games to force Game 7 at Boston. Bruins fans sat shocked as the Leafs held a 4-1 lead with just over 10 minutes left.
In the history of the NHL playoffs, no team had blown a 3-goal third period lead in Game 7. Until now. Trailing by 2 with 90 seconds left, the Bruins scored their 3rd and 4th goals in a span of 31 seconds after pulling Tuukka Rask. When Patrice Bergeron scored at 6:05 of O.T., the Bruins had completed their historic comeback and sent Leafs fans everywhere into total meltdown.
Ok, so maybe this isn’t the best pick me up for Leafs fans as we talk about the playoff chances of their 2016-17 group. Going into their game on Tuesday against Washington, the Leafs needed just 2 points in their final four games (all at home by the way) to clinch a playoff berth. After a pair of 4-1 losses to the Capitals and Lightning, the Leafs have their fans looking over their shoulder at the Islanders and Tampa Bay. It should also be noted that along with the Leafs needing to lose their final 2 games, both the Islanders and or Lightning would need to win their final 2 games to pass Toronto.
While some Leafs fans are very concerned, the 2016-17 season as been a historic one for Toronto which should provide a very bright future. The Leafs have become just the second team in NHL history to feature 3 rookies – Auston Matthews (67), Mitch Marner (61) and William Nylander (60) – each with 60 points (1980-81 Quebec Nordiques – Peter Stastny (109); Anton Stastny (85); Dale Hunter (63) were the only other team to do so).
After being drafted number 1 overall in the 2016 NHL Draft, Auston Matthews has had a major impact this season. He has not only set the Maple Leafs rookie record for goals in a season (breaking another former number 1 pick Wendell Clark’s record of 34), but his 39 goals are a record for American-born rookie (breaking Neal Broten’s record of 38 for Minnesota in the 1981-82 season).
Despite impressive seasons from those 3 rookies, the Leafs other rookies (Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown and Zach Hyman) have flown under the radar, helping Toronto to have the second best power-play in the NHL (24.1 Pct) while ranking 5th in the league in scoring (3.04 GPG). Last season Toronto finished 29th on the power play (15.4 Pct) and 28th in goals scored (2.34 GPG).
That said, it will all be meaningless for the Leafs and their fans if they don’t take care of business in either of the next 2 games. On Saturday and Sunday the Leafs will host a pair of 100-point teams (Pittsburgh and Columbus who they are both 1-1 against this season) that will face each other in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. It won’t be easy, but nothing has for this franchise since expansion started.