Neither Cliff Fletcher nor Mike Keenan could make it to New York City last week for Sotheby's auction of Camelot memorabilia. This was probably for the best, since both men seem to have a weakness for overpriced antiques. Keenan is coach and general manager of the St. Louis Blues (average age: 30.8). Fletcher is general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs (average age: 28.4). At stake as these teams clashed in their Western Conference quarterfinal series was the right to advance to the conference semis—there to be masticated and spit out by the Detroit Red Wings starting on Friday—and the right to boast: Our fossils are better than your fossils.
Those bragging rights ended up with the Blues, thanks in part to Steve Leach, a fourth-line right wing who was among the half-dozen veterans Keenan acquired during a frantic, pre-trading-deadline shopping spree in March. Keenan tossed Leach, a willing mucker whom the Boston Bruins had deemed expendable, into his postseason shopping bag for reasons practical (you can't have enough grit in the playoffs) and sentimental ("I roomed with his brother at St. Lawrence University," says Iron Mike).
Of course, Keenan doesn't really need a reason to swing a deal. He has made an astounding 89 roster moves since September, and the March 8 trade for Leach was one of the less significant among them—until seven minutes remained in Game 6 against the Leafs last Saturday night in St. Louis. Both Blues losses in the series had come in overtime, which, with the score 1-1, was where this game seemed headed.
That's when Keenan played a hunch. He tapped Leach on the shoulder and sent him out with Peter Zezel and Glenn Anderson, forwards with whom Leach didn't usually play. Zezel carried the puck into the Toronto zone and lost it to silver-haired Leafs defenseman Dave Ellett, the poster boy for this series, a guy who looks like the "before" picture in a Grecian Formula ad.
Ellett's attempted clearing pass hit teammate Brandon Convery and landed at the feet of a surprised and grateful Leach, who spun, fired a shot and watched the puck ricochet off Ellett's left skate, carom off the left post and scoot into the net.
Leach's Rube Goldberg goal was the game-winner and provided an appropriately homely end to the nastiest yet most ragged series of the first round of the playoffs. It pitted the small, slow, underachieving Leafs, who lost 17 of 24 games during one dreadful midwinter stretch, against the equally small, nicked-up, less-than-the-sum-of-their-parts Blues, who won once in their final 12 regular-season games.
For Wayne Gretzky, acquired by the Blues from the Los Angeles Kings on Feb. 27, the pleasure of being in the playoffs again after missing them for the last two seasons must have been tempered by the back pain that clearly affected his play. The Leafs knew all about Gretzky's injury; they took serial runs at the once untouchable 99, who said afterward, "I got hit more in this series than I've ever been hit in any series."
The St. Louis-Toronto matchup lost a marquee performer when Blues goalie Grant Fuhr, who set an NHL record by starting in 79 games this season, had his right knee blown out early in Game 2 by Leafs wing Nick Kypreos. After slashing Fuhr across the leg pads, Kypreos was cross-checked from behind by St. Louis defenseman Chris Pronger. Replays showed Pronger pushing Kypreos away from Fuhr. But Kypreos, in defiance of physics and sportsmanship, found a way to fall onto Fuhr, who suffered two torn ligaments and torn cartilage.
It was a precipitous drop from Fuhr, who should win the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goaltender this year, to backup netminder Jon Casey, who had spent most of this season in the minor leagues and had gone 21-19-2 for the Peoria Rivermen of the International Hockey League. Casey's career had apparently reached its zenith in 1991 when he led the Minnesota North Stars on a madcap run to the Stanley Cup finals. The Blues signed him two years ago as a free agent after he had a one-year stint with the Boston Bruins.
Before his mugging by Kypreos, whom the league suspended for one game, Fuhr had allowed one goal on 45 shots in Games 1 and 2. Casey allowed three goals on Toronto's next seven shots, and the Blues, who had won the series opener 3-1, lost Game 2 in overtime, 5-4. The game-winner, a soft wrist shot from Leafs center Mats Sundin, dribbled between Casey's legs. That bode ill for future games. By relying so heavily on Fuhr, General Keenan, it seemed, had gambled and lost.