Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Run in '59

If you live in the City of Toronto, you may have noticed space on the Maple Leafs bandwagon is shrinking at an alarming pace. Fans are asking the question - "Can they put together an extended run and make the playoffs?" If the current Leafs require inspiration, they should take a look at the 1958-59 Leaf team.

The 1958-59 season saw the launch of the Punch Imlach era in Toronto. In the two previous campaigns, the Blue & White failed to qualify for post-season action. Early in '58-59 (Nov.28/58), Imlach replaced Billy Reay as coach of the club. In his dual capacity, there was little doubt Imlach was in-charge. He acquired several key ingredients like Allan Stanley on defence, to go along with Bert Olmstead up front and Johnny Bower in goal. Both Olmstead and Bower came via the Intra-League Draft prior to Imlach joining the Leafs. On the ice, Imlach stressed the importance of playing a defensive system and positional play.

Heading into the final weekend of '58-59, it appeared as though the New York Rangers would control their own destiny. The Blueshirts were playing the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens. The Leafs opponents were Chicago and Detroit. Going into Saturday, the Rangers had a one-point lead over the Leafs for the final playoff spot. All New York had to do was win their final 2 games and it wouldn't matter what Toronto did on the weekend.

On Saturday, both the Rangers (5-2 over Detroit) and Leafs (5-1 over Chicago) posted victories. This set the stage for a dramatic final night for both clubs. It was thought New York had the edge as they were playing at home in Madison Square Garden. The Leafs were on the road visiting Detroit. The home-ice advantage never panned out for the Rangers. Their opponent, Montreal, had several players with incentive to set National Hockey League records. The Habs Dickie Moore scored a goal, his 41st, and an assist, his 55th, to finish the year with 96 points. This was a new NHL standard, passing Gordie Howe's 95 points in 1952-53. Jean Beliveau scored 2 goals and an assist against New York. "Big Jean" finished the season with 45 goals and 46 assists. His 91 points was the highest total registered by an NHL centre. The Canadiens defeated New York 4-2, handing the Rangers their sixth loss in seven games.

Larry Regan
 At the conclusion of the Rangers contest, all eyes turned to the Olympia in Detroit. The Red Wings took a first period lead on goals by Norm Ullman and Marcel Pronovost. Then, the Maple Leafs went to work. They netted 2 in the second frame (Larry Regan & Bobby Baun) to even the score. The two teams entered the third period tied 4-4. The winning goal was scored by Dick Duff and Billy Harris added an insurance marker. The Leafs were in the playoffs with a huge 6-4 win over Detroit.

In addition to Moore and Beliveau, several other players set NHL records in the final weekend of play. Bill Gadsby (New York) set a record for most assists by a defenceman - 46. The Canadiens set a record for total goals - 258. Johnny Wilson of the Red Wings played in his 510th consecutive game. The record-holder was Murray Murdoch of the Rangers, who skated in 508 consecutive regular season games. His final contest was in 1937. Ted Lindsay broke his own record of 161 penalty minutes by spending 178 minutes in the box.

As for the Leafs, they advanced to the Stanley Cup finals, but came up against the powerful Canadiens. The Habs won the Cup on April 18, 1959 with a 5-3 victory to take the series 4-1.

The 2010-11 Leafs and their fans will be happy if they just make the playoffs. Then, you never know what can happen.

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