Leafs-Detroit ’93 Playoff Was Phenomenal

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Sep. 25) – If you aren’t old enough to remember the spring of 1993 – and just how good the Maple Leafs really were – all you have to know is your favorite team knocked off a Detroit club in the opening round that boasted Paul Coffey, Mark Howe and Nicklas Lidstrom on the blue-line.

Coffey and Howe are in the Hall of Fame; Lidstrom will be elected on the first-ballot in 2015. During their brilliant careers, the trio combined for 857 goals, 2,558 assists and 3,415 points. Coffey and Lidstrom each skated on four Stanley Cup teams. Lidstrom was in his second NHL season; Coffey and Howe were past their prime but still had remarkable speed and puck-handling skill. Up front, the Red Wings were paced by future Hall of Famers Steve Yzerman and Dino Ciccarelli, who had combined for 99 goals and 234 points in the regular season. After a pair of lop-sided defeats to begin the series in Detroit, Leafs rebounded to win four of five and eliminate the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena on a memorable overtime goal in Game 7 by Nikolai Borschevsky.

It was playoff hockey at its absolute best.

Though a decided underdog, Leafs were nicely stocked up front with Doug Gilmour, Dave Andreychuk, Glenn Anderson and Wendel Clark. Gilmour and Anderson are in the Hall of Fame and Andreychuk should be there with 640 career goals – 14th on the all-time list. Gilmour turned in the most dominant playoff effort in Leafs history with a club-record 35 points in 21 games, coming off a regular season in which he established team marks of 95 assists and 127 points that stand two decades later.

Toronto went the distance with Detroit, St. Louis and Los Angeles before losing Game 7 of the conference final to Wayne Gretzky and the Kings. I was privileged to cover the Leafs entire playoff march for The Fan-590, Canada’s first all-sports readio station.

“THE KISS” – DON CHERRY EMBRACES FELLOW KINGSTON NATIVE DOUG GILMOUR DURING LEGENDARY COACH’S CORNER MOMENT IN 1993 PLAYOFFS AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS.

I re-lived a few moments of the Toronto-Detroit division semi-final while watching replays of Games 3 and 4 at Maple Leaf Gardens on Leafs TV Classics. To this day, Red Wings fans argue that goaltending cost their team the series – evoking the adage that a hockey club is only as strong as its weakest link. And though Detroit was at a disadvantage in the match-up between Tim Cheveldae and Felix Potvin, the Leafs overcame much-greater odds to defeat a favored opponent.

These, of course, remain the defining moments of the post-1967 era for the Maple Leafs. May 29, 1993 stands as the latest the club has ventured into the playoffs since last winning the Stanley Cup: within one game of the final. Leafs have never played in the month of June – a May 31 match at Air Canada Centre against Buffalo in 1999 being the calendar record (Sabres won the conference championship that night in five games and went on to play Dallas for the Stanley Cup).

Leaf fans less than 30 years old will have little or no memory of the 1993 playoff run. The iconic element from that spring remains the Game 6 overtime defeat against Los Angeles at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif. when referee Kerry Fraser chose not to banish Gretzky after No. 99 cut Gilmour with the follow-through of a shot.

Had they won that night, Leafs would have advanced to the ’93 Cup final against Montreal. Instead, Gretzky scored the OT winner with ex-Oilers teammate Glenn Anderson in the penalty box. The Great One then recorded a hat-trick in the deciding match two nights later at Maple Leaf Gardens.

TELEVISION SEQUENCE OF GILMOUR SKATING TO THE VISITORS’ BENCH AT LOS ANGELES FORUM DURING FATEFUL GAME 6 OF WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL – MAY 27, 1993.

But, the best hockey during the Leafs playoff charge occurred in the opening-round tilt with Detroit. Though the stakes were exponentially higher against L.A., the pace and drama of the Detroit series out-shone anything that’s been witnessed in these parts over the past 20 years. Geographic and division rivals from the pre-expansion era, Leafs and Red Wings left everything on the ice during the seven-game marathon. Aside from the future Hall of Famers previously mentioned, there were such-memorable participants as Mike Foligno, Sergei Fedorov and a trio of warriors that has since passed on: Leafs coach Pat Burns; centre Peter Zezel and Detroit legend Bob Probert.

“That was great entertainment and the Leafs accomplished something very special by coming back from a 2-0 deficit against the Red Wings,” remembers Harry Neale, who called the playoff round with Bob Cole on Hockey Night In Canada. “After the first two games in Detroit, I felt the series would be over in short order [Wings prevailed 6-3 and 6-2], and as someone who was paid by the game, it didn’t look like a financial wind-fall. If I haven’t yet done so, I thank the Maple Leafs for that gritty rebound.”

Emotional swings were numerous. As Neale recalls, every sign pointed to a Detroit romp after the opening sequence at Joe Louis Arena. The final scores accurately reflected the lop-sided character of each game while Ciccarelli – a Hall of Fame goal-scorer and pest – drove Felix Potvin to delirium with his antics in front of the Toronto goal. The 380-kilometer switch from Detroit to Toronto, however, galvanized the Leafs, who responded with 4-2 and 3-2 victories while building a strategic and psychological advantage between the pipes. When a 4-1 Detroit edge began to dissolve in the third period of Game 5, you could feel the confidence draining from the crowd at JLA. Not a single person on hand that night in the 20,000-seat arena was surprised when Mike Foligno’s goal early in overtime capped a 5-4 comeback by the visitors.

FROM HOCKEY NIGHT IN CANADA, APR. 25, 1993: LEAFS AND RED WINGS BATTLE IN GAME 4 AT THE GARDENS – TORONTO PREVAILING, 3-2, TO SQUARE THE BEST-OF-SEVEN SERIES.

      

TORONTO SUN TELLS THE STORY (ABOVE) AFTER MIKE FOLIGNO WINS GAME 5 OF THE LEAFS-RED WINGS SERIES IN OVERTIME AT JOE LOUIS ARENA.

Suddenly, it appeared Leafs were unstoppable – having won three consecutive games over the demoralized Red Wings. But, that theory sailed two nights later at the Gardens when Detroit vehemently shunned elimination with a 7-3 pounding of the Blue and White in Game 6. Just as quickly as the Leafs had taken control, the Red Wings recorded their third rout of the series and many Toronto observers felt the deciding match in MoTown would similarly evolve. Wrong again.   

File:Detroit Red Wings logo.svg

Late in the third period of a monumental clash – the Leafs trailing, 3-2, and on the cusp of elimination – Gilmour scored from in close to tie the game and set up a winner-take-all overtime. Just two minutes and 35 seconds into the extra frame, Nik Borschevsky – a diminutive Russian-born winger in his first NHL season – re-directed a point-shot by defenseman Bob Rouse into the Detroit goal. The only sound that followed in Joe Louis Arena came from delirious Leaf players pouring onto the ice to mob Borschevsky. Stunned silence prevailed elsewhere.

“For any Leafs fan too young to remember 1967, that was one of the great moments,” says Harry Neale. “For people today that have never seen the Leafs in a playoff game, the excitement can only be imagined. Little did we know that night in Detroit that Leafs would come so close to the Stanley Cup final. It was terrific hockey and Gilmour was the best player on the ice in most of the games that spring.”

NEWSPAPER HEADLINES DENOTING LEAFS GAME 7 OVERTIME VICTORY.

Leafs would play two series and 14 more games, but the caliber of hockey never quite equaled the Toronto-Detroit skirmish. Two decades have barely dimmed the memory.

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