LOS ANGELES (May 5) – First there was stunned silence… and then JUST silence – year after year after year: the epitaph of the post-lockout Toronto Maple Leafs.
In the late-’70s, as part of a craze surrounding the monster television series “Dallas”, the question was “who shot J.R.?” On May 4, 2004 – eight years ago last night – it was “who did J.R. shoot” and what exactly did he kill? The immediate answer, of course, was the Leafs – banished from the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs on a goal at 7:39 of overtime by Jeremy Roenick of Philadelphia in Game 6 at the Air Canada Centre. What no person would have figured at that moment, however, was the extent to which Roenick’s tally proved the beginning of something; not the end.
It remains, to this day, the last second of playoff participation involving the Maple Leafs, who have more than doubled, in the interim, the franchise record for post-season absence – seven, and counting (in 2004, the club futility mark was three).
“Never in a million years would I have thought the Leafs would still be waiting for their next playoff game,” acknowledged Roenick when I contacted him in Arizona on Friday. “That was a pretty good team – and a very good era – for the Leafs, with Pat Quinn behind the bench and a lot of accomplished veterans wearing the uniform. It was the second consecutive year that we had eliminated Toronto from the playoffs, but most people – myself included – just assumed they’d be back the next season. Leafs were always in the playoffs in that era.”
Such a notion today – particularly among youthful fans of the Blue and White – likely ranges between foreign and incomprehensible. It has been so long since the club took part in the Stanley Cup tournament that a follower of the team has to be nearing 20 years of age to possess any first-hand recollection of Roenick’s tally, or the games leading up to it that spring. Familiarity rang true in the opening round, when the Leafs dispatched Ottawa for the fourth time in as many playoff meetings during a five-year stretch that began in 2000. The veteran goalie and future Hall-of-Famer, Ed Belfour, had almost single-handedly been responsible for ousting the ’04 Senators and it therefore came as little surprise that the Leafs encountered a major challenge against Philly in the Conference semifinal.
Though the series went to its penultimate hour, expectation in Toronto had plummeted after a 7-2 home-ice romp by the Flyers in the pivotal fifth match. Game 6 appeared as if it would end in regulation when the visitors carried a 2-0 lead, and blanket control, into the third period. But, a late uprising – Karel Pilar scoring at 9:04; Mats Sundin at 15:08 – forced extra time; no one realizing that Sundin’s goal would stand up, eight years later, as the most recent tally in Leaf playoff annals.
After copious humiliation and franchise decay in the 1980s – and consecutive playoff misses in 1991 and ’92 – the Leafs had become perennial qualifiers. In the 12-season span between 1993 and 2004, the club failed to appear in the Stanley Cup tournament only twice (1997 and ’98). Sparked by the tireless Doug Gilmour, Toronto played in consecutive Conference finals in ’93 and ’94. Two other such advancements occurred under Quinn, the much-respected coach, and Curtis Joseph: to this day the beacon of franchise success on the free agent market. When Joseph moved on to Detroit in the summer of 2002, Quinn (also the Leafs GM) signed Belfour to replace him and the Eagle faced his great pal and former Blackhawks teammate in the ’04 Toronto-Philadelphia clash.
“Eddie may have been the most competitive teammate I ever had,” said Roenick, who skated with Belfour at Chicago during the first eight seasons of his career (1988-96). “Playing against him was the ultimate challenge and I remember – as clear as if it were yesterday – sitting in the Flyers dressing room at the ACC before that overtime period eight years ago and visualizing; literally visualizing what I would do if I had the puck on a 2-on-1 break. I wanted to score the goal and get that series over with. To do so, I had to come up with something Eddie wasn’t expecting.
“In all the years we practiced together with Chicago, he was accustomed to me trying to beat him on the long side, over his right pad… I probably scored half my career goals that way,” J.R. continued. “So, I figured he’d be expecting me to do the same when I broke in [with Tony Amonte]. Instead, I went top-shelf on the short side and probably made the best shot of my career. Eddie rarely gave a shooter any space but there were a couple of inches in the upper-right corner of the net and I threaded the needle. It was an absolutely perfect shot; half-an-inch higher or lower and it would have missed.”
Considered alongside Pat LaFontaine, Mike Modano and Joe Mullen as the best American-born forward to ever play in the NHL, Roenick scored 513 goals and 1,216 points in 1,363 regular-season games with Chicago, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Jose between 1988-89 and 2008-09. In 154 playoff games, he added 53 goals and 122 points. The overtime marker that began the Leafs interminable playoff drought ranks among his most cherished hockey memories.
“Definitely in the top three,” Roenick said. “I scored the last goal ever in Chicago Stadium – also against Toronto [in the 1994 playoffs] – and that was pretty special, too. But, to knock off the Leafs, in Toronto, with an overtime goal is right there with anything I accomplished in the NHL.
“I used to love playing in the ACC and at the old [Maple Leaf] Gardens. Toronto hockey fans know what they’re watching and I always got jacked up going in there. I used to play it up, big time, in front of the fans – bowing to them after I scored or cupping my hand to my ear when they were booing me, as if I couldn’t hear them. The photo of me whooping it up with Markus Ragnarsson after the overtime goal in 2004 is really great. You can see the stunned faces in the crowd and there’s a guy right above my helmet who looked like he was flipping me the ‘bird’.
“If I didn’t get jeered in Toronto, I wasn’t doing my job.”
Though the Leafs and their fans are still reeling from the monumental collapse in the final third of this season – “I have no friggin’ idea what happened there,” Roenick admitted – the long-time NHL forward still thinks the club is in capable hands.
“Brian Burke will get that situation turned around,” he said. “He’s a very good hockey executive and a proud man as well; I can imagine how the situation this season must be effecting him. I think Brian should look at the job Dale Tallon did in Florida – mostly through quality free agent acquisitions: guys like Tomas Fleicschmann, Kris Versteeg, Brian Campbell, Ed Jovanovski and Marcel Goc. I know things didn’t work out for Versteeg in Toronto but if you show a bit more faith in a veteran, the situation can turn around.
“Brian has to acquire the right type of player in free agency – not just the next-best guy on the list. No disrespect toward Tim Connolly, but he has a history of concussion and other injuries. So, you have to look beyond just a player’s talent to find the right mix.”
Toronto has been seeking that mix for eight long years – May 4 quickly moving alongside May 2  as the date of infamy on the Maple Leafs calendar.
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