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Original Issue

Life For the Leafs

Toronto, a perennial pushover, surprised Detroit in seven gritty games

Doug Gilmour just wouldn't let the Toronto Maple Leafs lose. The little guy with the giant heart and the purple welt under his right eye had found some reservoir of strength at the most preposterously critical time—the seventh game of a playoff series—and for 62½ minutes he dominated one of the best hockey games of this or any other year. His appreciative teammates knew it. As Gilmour, a small cut over his eyebrow contrasting with the discolored bruise beneath it, was patiently answering questions about Toronto's improbable overtime victory in Detroit, which eliminated the favored Red Wings last Saturday, one teammate after another walked past and nudged him on the arm. "Unbelievable, buddy," said one.

A minute passed. "Unbelievable," said the next.

It was the word of choice to describe Gilmour's heroics in the Octopus's Garden, otherwise known as Detroit's Joe Louis Arena, where Red Wing fans traditionally toss eight-armed creatures onto the ice for luck. Despite being checked by two of the best centers in the game, Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov, the scrappy Gilmour was involved in all four of Toronto's goals. The Red Wings, meanwhile, were unable to score with Gilmour on the ice.

He was everywhere, in the middle of every scoring opportunity, a pebble in every Red Wing skate. The 29-year-old Gilmour double-shifted, playing with Glenn Anderson and Dave Andreychuk on one line and with Wendel Clark and Nikolai Borschevsky on another, and somehow never got tired. "The more I played, the more I wanted to play," he said. "You don't get tired at this time of year."

With the Leafs trailing 3-2, the Red Wings in a defensive shell and just 2:43 remaining, it was Gilmour who sent the game into overtime, somehow breaking free from Yzerman and beating Detroit goaltender Tim Cheveldae cleanly off a feed from Clark. Then early in sudden death, moments after a Red Wing fan had heaved yet another octopus onto the ice, it was Gilmour who dug a loose puck out of the corner and found defenseman Bob Rouse open at the point. Rouse's shot was tipped in by the unlikeliest of heroes, the 27-year-old Borschevsky, who had missed the previous five games of the series after breaking the orbital bone beneath his right eye. Borschevsky's goal gave the Leafs their first series win since 1987 and propelled them into the Norris Division finals against the well-rested St. Louis Blues, who had ousted the Chicago Blackhawks in four games. On Monday in Toronto the Leafs beat the Blues in the first game of that series, 2-1.

The Toronto-Detroit matchup was characterized by such violent changes in momentum that in these two cities so rich in hockey lore, fans and newspaper wags who might otherwise have been expected to know better kept falling off the bandwagons. After the Wings took the first two games at home with relative ease, 6-3 and 6-2, the Leafs, who hadn't defeated the Wings in the playoffs since 1964, were written off in both Detroit and Toronto. They were too slow, too dependent on the Gilmour-Andreychuk-Anderson line, and, most obviously, too tired. Coach Pat Burns, in his first year with the Leafs after leaving Montreal, had pushed them so hard in the regular season—they had improved 32 points from a year ago—that he squeezed all the juice from a team that was looking like a pulpless rind.

Clark, the Leafs' captain, once one of the toughest players in the league, was playing like a ghost of his former self. So ineffective was he in Games 1 and 2 that pundits in the Detroit press began calling him Wendy, a slight that would come back to haunt them. Asked what he could do to provide more inspiration and leadership when the Leafs returned home, Clark scratched his head and muttered these fighting words: "That's too deep for me. I'm just a farmer."

"Our players read all that stuff in the papers and believed it," moaned Detroit's coach and general manager, Bryan Murray. "It didn't matter how many times we told them they'd see a different team in Toronto. And Burns convinced everyone those guys were the underdogs."

The Leafs, of course, were the underdogs. But despite trailing 2-0 in games, they were not about to die easily. Burns's teams are characterized by their hard-nosed, disciplined defensive play, a style that is well suited to the playoffs. And all season the Leafs, who had as many as nine new players in their lineup from a year ago, had matched up well against the Wings. They had split their regular-season series with three wins each, plus a tie. Detroit ended the season with 103 points, the fifth-best record in the league; revamped Toronto was eighth best, with 99 points. Detroit was the NHL's highest-scoring team; Toronto was the second-best defensive club. Most important, in the net Toronto had 21-year-old rookie Felix (the Cat) Potvin, who sported the lowest goals-against average in the league, 2.50. Detroit had Cheveldae, who entered these playoffs with a spotty 6-11 postseason record. And as everyone knows, goaltending wins playoff games.

Sure enough, goaltending was one of the keys to Games 3 and 4, as Potvin held the Wings to a pair of goals in both games, and the Leafs evened the series with 4-2 and 3-2 wins in Maple Leaf Gardens. Farmer Wendy scored a goal and an assist and generally threw his oft-injured 26-going-on-46-year-old body around with sufficient gusto to be named first star one night and number two star the next.

Burns, who had the last line change, matched Gilmour's line against Yzerman's, and Gilmour responded by outplaying the Red Wing star, notching four assists while holding the frustrated Yzerman pointless. "With everything he does, Doug Gilmour is definitely the MVP of this league," says Burns, an assertion that wouldn't be popular in Pittsburgh, where Mario Lemieux plays. Since Leaf general manager Cliff Fletcher acquired Gilmour from the Calgary Flames last season in a 10-player trade, the Maple Leafs have become dependent on the gritty center. In games this season in which Gilmour was held pointless, Toronto was 3-13-1. When he scored—and Gilmour set a Leaf record with 127 points on 32 goals and 95 assists—Toronto was 41-15-10.

After four games in the series the Red Wings, to their apparent surprise, had a fight on their hands. But it wasn't until they blew Game 5 in Joe Louis Arena that the Wings really understood that they were in trouble. They cruised to a 4-1 lead and were dominating the game in all facets when—pffft!—Cheveldae let in a soft shot by Toronto defenseman Dave Ellett midway through the second period.

Slowly, tirelessly, the Leafs came back, forced overtime and won the game when 34-year-old Mike Foligno, the Leafs' oldest player, slid a screen shot along the ice beneath Cheveldae's stick. It was the Leafs' fifth goal on just 21 shots and brought the boo-birds down onto Cheveldae in full flight. One Detroit columnist called Cheveldae's "the worst performance by a man in a mask since Adam West played Batman."

There is something curiously relaxed about a team that is facing elimination, and the Red Wings, who had now lost three straight, approached the sixth game with the swagger of a team that had nothing to lose. Assistant coach Doug MacLean saw Cheveldae the morning after his horrific performance in Game 5 and, smiling, called him a dirty word. "What?" said Chevy, who coaches at MacLean's Prince Edward Island hockey camp in the summer.

"Coast to coast, national TV, and you stink the joint out," MacLean joked. "We had 50 camp cancellations after the game."

Yzerman, too, was under attack in the papers. After scoring 137 points this year, fourth-best in the league, he had been held scoreless for three straight games. His leadership and heart were publicly questioned, and some speculated that he was hiding an injury. Yzerman was asking himself some of the same questions. Did he care too much? Or not enough? He purposely read some of the papers to find out what others were saying about him. "Sometimes you need a kick in the rear to get you going," he said. He spent some ting with Red Wing sports psychologist Kent Osborne, who asked him what he was thinking.

"Gotta win, gotta win, gotta win!" Yzerman replied.

"And if you don't win?" Osborne asked. "Is the world going to end?"

The message to Yzerman, from Osborne, from his wife, from his teammates: Lighten up. Relax. Have some fun. Then Yzerman went to see Murray and MacLean and asked them not to lie to him. How was he playing? What could he do to be better? Said Murray, "We asked him not to lose to Doug Gilmour's line. To look after his own end, and if he did that, the scoring chances would come."

And so they did, in bunches. With Yzerman in effect turning the tables on Gilmour and assuming the role of the highest-paid checking center in the league, Toronto's offense stalled. "I had no jump in my legs," Gilmour said. Yzerman had a goal and an assist, and Detroit's depth at the skill positions took over. The Red Wings scored four power-play and two shorthanded goals and coasted to a 7-3 win. In six playoff games the Wings' power play had scored on an eye-popping 33% of its chances.

Which is why it was critical that the Leafs play with discipline when they returned to Detroit for Game 7. They did, taking no stupid penalties. In fact, they took no penalties at all. Zippo. The Maple Leafs kept the prepotent Wings' power play off the ice the entire game. These Leafs were—are—a team prepared to do just about anything to win. Certainly Gilmour was. He set up Anderson for Toronto's first goal, then defenseman Bob Rouse for the second, and, for the fourth time in the series, he held Yzerman scoreless. All that was before his heroics at the end of the game.

As the Leafs writhed in an elated scrum on the ice after Borschevsky's winning tally, Fletcher, the white-haired 57-year-old architect of these rejuvenated Leafs, closed his eyes, overcome with emotion. "You can't overestimate what a win like this means to a team in its development stage," he finally said.

Certainly the Blues had better not. And they had better keep their eyes on Gilmour. He's the black-eyed guy who will be in the middle of just about everything.



Gilmour (left) sat on Yzerman (19), shutting him out in all four Leaf wins.



Nicklas Lidstrom (5) played wrenching defense against Rob Pearson.



Cheveldae (32) couldn't keep Borschevsky (16) in the background at the end of Game 7.



Borschevsky made a lot of fans with his series-winning overtime goal.