Doug Gilmour just wouldn't let the Toronto Maple Leafs lose. The little guy with the giant heart and the purple welt under his right eye had found some reservoir of strength at the most preposterously critical time—the seventh game of a playoff series—and for 62� minutes he dominated one of the best hockey games of this or any other year. His appreciative teammates knew it. As Gilmour, a small cut over his eyebrow contrasting with the discolored bruise beneath it, was patiently answering questions about Toronto's improbable overtime victory in Detroit, which eliminated the favored Red Wings last Saturday, one teammate after another walked past and nudged him on the arm. "Unbelievable, buddy," said one.
A minute passed. "Unbelievable," said the next.
It was the word of choice to describe Gilmour's heroics in the Octopus's Garden, otherwise known as Detroit's Joe Louis Arena, where Red Wing fans traditionally toss eight-armed creatures onto the ice for luck. Despite being checked by two of the best centers in the game, Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov, the scrappy Gilmour was involved in all four of Toronto's goals. The Red Wings, meanwhile, were unable to score with Gilmour on the ice.
He was everywhere, in the middle of every scoring opportunity, a pebble in every Red Wing skate. The 29-year-old Gilmour double-shifted, playing with Glenn Anderson and Dave Andreychuk on one line and with Wendel Clark and Nikolai Borschevsky on another, and somehow never got tired. "The more I played, the more I wanted to play," he said. "You don't get tired at this time of year."
With the Leafs trailing 3-2, the Red Wings in a defensive shell and just 2:43 remaining, it was Gilmour who sent the game into overtime, somehow breaking free from Yzerman and beating Detroit goaltender Tim Cheveldae cleanly off a feed from Clark. Then early in sudden death, moments after a Red Wing fan had heaved yet another octopus onto the ice, it was Gilmour who dug a loose puck out of the corner and found defenseman Bob Rouse open at the point. Rouse's shot was tipped in by the unlikeliest of heroes, the 27-year-old Borschevsky, who had missed the previous five games of the series after breaking the orbital bone beneath his right eye. Borschevsky's goal gave the Leafs their first series win since 1987 and propelled them into the Norris Division finals against the well-rested St. Louis Blues, who had ousted the Chicago Blackhawks in four games. On Monday in Toronto the Leafs beat the Blues in the first game of that series, 2-1.
The Toronto- Detroit matchup was characterized by such violent changes in momentum that in these two cities so rich in hockey lore, fans and newspaper wags who might otherwise have been expected to know better kept falling off the bandwagons. After the Wings took the first two games at home with relative ease, 6-3 and 6-2, the Leafs, who hadn't defeated the Wings in the playoffs since 1964, were written off in both Detroit and Toronto. They were too slow, too dependent on the Gilmour-Andreychuk-Anderson line, and, most obviously, too tired. Coach Pat Burns, in his first year with the Leafs after leaving Montreal, had pushed them so hard in the regular season—they had improved 32 points from a year ago—that he squeezed all the juice from a team that was looking like a pulpless rind.
Clark, the Leafs' captain, once one of the toughest players in the league, was playing like a ghost of his former self. So ineffective was he in Games 1 and 2 that pundits in the Detroit press began calling him Wendy, a slight that would come back to haunt them. Asked what he could do to provide more inspiration and leadership when the Leafs returned home, Clark scratched his head and muttered these fighting words: "That's too deep for me. I'm just a farmer."
"Our players read all that stuff in the papers and believed it," moaned Detroit's coach and general manager, Bryan Murray. "It didn't matter how many times we told them they'd see a different team in Toronto. And Burns convinced everyone those guys were the underdogs."
The Leafs, of course, were the underdogs. But despite trailing 2-0 in games, they were not about to die easily. Burns's teams are characterized by their hard-nosed, disciplined defensive play, a style that is well suited to the playoffs. And all season the Leafs, who had as many as nine new players in their lineup from a year ago, had matched up well against the Wings. They had split their regular-season series with three wins each, plus a tie. Detroit ended the season with 103 points, the fifth-best record in the league; revamped Toronto was eighth best, with 99 points. Detroit was the NHL's highest-scoring team; Toronto was the second-best defensive club. Most important, in the net Toronto had 21-year-old rookie Felix (the Cat) Potvin, who sported the lowest goals-against average in the league, 2.50. Detroit had Cheveldae, who entered these playoffs with a spotty 6-11 postseason record. And as everyone knows, goaltending wins playoff games.
Sure enough, goaltending was one of the keys to Games 3 and 4, as Potvin held the Wings to a pair of goals in both games, and the Leafs evened the series with 4-2 and 3-2 wins in Maple Leaf Gardens. Farmer Wendy scored a goal and an assist and generally threw his oft-injured 26-going-on-46-year-old body around with sufficient gusto to be named first star one night and number two star the next.