April 22, 2000: The Maple Leafs trail Ottawa 1-0 in the third
period of Game 5 of an Eastern Conference quarterfinal series
that is tied at two games apiece. All night Toronto coach Pat
Quinn has been urging his team to bully its way to the Senators'
net. Yet the Leafs forwards--mostly finesse players who thrive by
skating around defenders, not through them--appear unwilling, or
unable, to do Quinn's bidding.
Suddenly left wing Darcy Tucker comes thundering into the Ottawa
zone. He brushes off a check and follows the puck to the
goalmouth, where he wallops netminder Tom Barrasso. The brazen
hit transforms the game and the series. Ottawa's defensemen begin
to skate warily and, with Tucker leading the way, the emboldened
Leafs tie the match, win it in overtime and then take Game 6.
Says Tucker, "That's how I make my living."
Quinn, who is also Toronto's general manager, knew just that when
he acquired Tucker from the Lightning last February. The move was
a wise first attempt to fine-tune Toronto's sleek scoring machine
for the playoffs. The Leafs, who played a high-speed, risk-taking
style, had six players score at least 18 goals last season, more
than on any other club in the Eastern Conference. All told, the
team scored 246 goals, second most in the conference, and the
offensive creativity carried them to the Northeast title. The
style, however, depends on finding open ice and in the
postseason, Quinn points out, "there's a lot of traffic on the
ice. You need guys who'll fight through it."
At 5'10" and 179 pounds, Tucker fights through more on audacity
than power. In last year's conference semifinals against the
eventual Stanley Cup-winning Devils, his repeated run-ins with
goalie Martin Brodeur helped the Leafs win two games. Otherwise,
Toronto proved bootless against New Jersey's muscle.
No team addressed its needs in the off-season better than
Toronto. Quinn answered the club's lack of toughness by signing
free-agent left wings Gary Roberts and Shayne Corson, two of the
NHL's most courageous physical presences. Roberts, 34, plays an
even more hellbent style than he did before missing the 1996-97
season after having neck surgery. Corson, 34, was the Canadiens'
most unyielding scrapper the past two years. "These guys battle
for loose pucks, and they're never afraid to push to the net,"
says center Mats Sundin. "That's the element we've been missing."
Sundin, 29, is the star around which nimble wingers such as
Sergei Berezin, Igor Korolev and Dimitri Khristich revolve. The
Leafs also send out an extremely mobile defense in front of
unflappable goalie Curtis Joseph (36-20-7 with a .915 save
percentage); the signing of raging veteran Dave Manson, who
allegedly bit the thumb of Wings forward Martin Lapointe in a
preseason game, adds needed teeth to the blue line.
No one is more hopped up about the changes than Tucker, who
primes himself for games by downing a mixture of Coca-Cola and
coffee. He is one of several Leafs who believe the club now has a
chance to win it all. "Teams that play for the Cup have a
dimension of speed," says Tucker, "but also a dimension of grit."
This year Toronto has plenty of both.
With 39 points and just two penalty minutes in 61 games last
season, wing Sergei Berezin had the NHL's highest rate of points
per penalty minute (19.5) among skaters who played at least 25
CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY
FORWARDS 7 They have it all: speed, grit and skill
DEFENSE 9 Must reduce second-chance opportunities
GOALTENDING 2 Joseph thrives when he faces lots of
SPECIAL TEAMS 13 Penalty killing (20th last season) needs
MANAGEMENT 7 Quinn is one of most respected minds in