TORONTO — For this Toronto Maple Leafs team, despite the franchise’s rich and storied past, it is not the time for history lessons.
The Leafs, of course, do not like talking about the Game 7 collapse against the Boston Bruins five years ago.
Coach Mike Babcock does not even want to refer to the 1992-93 team, which was drubbed in its first two playoff games before going on a magical run to the conference finals.
“I don’t go back, even when I’m coaching the team for a series here or a series there,” Babcock said after practice Wednesday. “To me, they’re all different. As far as what happened to the Leafs in 1993, I don’t know much about it.”
Fans who have remained loyal through the tough times will remember. It was the closest the Leafs have come to reaching the Stanley Cup Final since winning the championship in 1967.
The 1993 team was beaten, 6-3 and 6-2, in the first two games in Detroit as the Red Wings neutralized Toronto’s leader, Doug Gilmour, with strong, physical play, while the normally combative Wendel Clark received bad press for looking passive and disinterested.
This year, Toronto lost Games 1 and 2 in Boston, 5-1 and 7-3, and criticism was directed at Toronto’s best player, Auston Matthews. Many were writing the Leafs’ epitaph for a season in which they established a franchise record for wins (49) and points (105).
But in Game 3 at home on Monday, Toronto held off Boston, 4-2, to trim the Bruins’ series lead to 2-1. Game 4 is Thursday.
Like the 2018 Leafs, the 1993 team cranked up the emotion and will to win in Game 3, charging back to beat the Red Wings, 4-2. Toronto then evened the series in Game 4, and eventually took Game 7 in Detroit on an overtime goal by Nikolai Borschevsky. Toronto advanced to the conference finals by beating the St. Louis Blues in seven games, but fell short of the Cup final with a seven-game loss to the Los Angeles Kings.
Back in 1993, the Leafs relied on grit and experience. They were powered by Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk, who were approaching their 30th birthdays, and Clark, who was 26 and in his eighth NHL season.
Even the last time Toronto won a playoff series, in 2004 against the Ottawa Senators, the Leafs were loaded with veterans and future Hall of Famers like Mats Sundin, then 32; Joe Nieuwendyk, 37; Ron Francis, 40; and goaltender Ed Belfour, 38.
Youth and raw talent form the nucleus of this year’s Leafs, which could be a vulnerability. Experience becomes a premium in the playoffs, when handling adversity is as important as handling a puck. Toronto’s top two scorers in the regular season, Mitch Marner and Matthews, are only 20, and the third-leading scorer, William Nylander, is 21.
“What you’ve got to remember is these guys are young guys,” Babcock said. “You’ve got to go through some of these slappings in your life and respond and learn how to play.”
Boston’s top line is well seasoned, with Brad Marchand, 29, and Patrice Bergeron, 32, who have 179 playoff games between them and have won a Stanley Cup. They are complemented by 21-year-old David Pastrnak, who entered Wednesday’s games as the leading point scorer in the postseason with 9 in three games.
Among the fresh-faced Leafs, 10 players made their postseason debuts last spring when Toronto lost to the Washington Capitals in six games in the first round. Trying to capitalize on the franchise’s momentum, management sprinkled this year’s lineup with veteran talent like 38-year-old Patrick Marleau, the 36-year-old defenseman Ron Hainsey and 35-year-old Tomas Plekanec.
“There was a little more of that wide-eyedness out of guys last year,” forward James van Riemsdyk said. “Now, this year, there is more of that confidence.”
Yet optimism started to fade quickly in the playoffs when Nazem Kadri, the team’s shutdown center and 32-goal scorer, was suspended for three games for an illegal hit on Tommy Wingels in Game 1.
After the first two games, Toronto’s critics zeroed in on Matthews, who had been held off the score sheet, defenseman Nikita Zaitsev and even Babcock for his matchup and lineup decisions. The coach took heat before Game 3 for promoting Plekanec from the fourth line to the second line between Marleau and Marner.
Plekanec had been a disappointment since coming from the Montreal Canadiens in a trade in late February. Yet on Monday, in the familiar checking role he specialized in with Montreal, Plekanec kept the Bruins’ top line scoreless.
“He played his best game since he’s been here,” Babcock said. “Maybe just the fact that he maybe didn’t feel as important as he should have when he got here affected his play.”
That second line scored a pair of goals, off the stick of Marleau, while Matthews got his first goal of the playoffs.
“I thought Auston got the weight of the world off his back,” Babcock said Wednesday.
Despite 13 Stanley Cup championships, trailing only the Canadiens with 24, the Maple Leafs have been mostly a laughable band of losers in recent years. They have reached the playoffs only three times since the 2004-05 lockout and share the longest championship drought in the NHL.
The evidence of a glorious past is everywhere at the Air Canada Centre. The walls outside the dressing room are lined with photos depicting scenes of players from the 1960s like George Armstrong clutching the Stanley Cup and coach Punch Imlach sipping Champagne in front of a blackboard on which is humorously scrawled, “No practice tomorrow.”
Five years ago, Tim Leiweke, the team president at the time, created an uproar by threatening to remove the portraits of the old boys. “We want to put pressure on these guys,” he said then. “I want it to be about them.”
But the current team president, Brendan Shanahan, a Hall of Fame player who grew up in the Toronto area, preserved the photos and was a major influence in the creation of Legends Row, the bronze statues placed outside the arena that immortalize the Leafs’ heroes of the past.
Babcock said, “I think we just have to keep building the product on the ice so it matches our history.”