Maple Leafs have thrived in shorter NHL seasons

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Three times in the NHL history has the schedule been in the vicinity of 56 games, and in each of those 60-game seasons — 1946-47, 1947-48 and 1948-49 — the Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup.

Toronto became the first NHL team to win three consecutive championships, the only time it would be done in the Original Six era of 1942-67.

“I don’t know why you guys are so excited,” Maple Leafs trainer Tim Daly joked in the chaos of the team’s third straight title. “We do it every year.”

The NHL and NHL Players’ Association announced on Sunday they had approved a 56-game season for 2020-21 starting on Jan. 13. The start of the season has been delayed due to continuing concerns surrounding the coronavirus.

The mid-1940s was a very different time, obviously. The six-team NHL, moving from 50 to 60 games in 1946-47, was gathering steam following World War II, badly depleted rosters filling back up as players returned to play, and Clarence Campbell had replaced Red Dutton as NHL president, a job Campbell would hold from 1946-77.


Toronto Maple Leafs captain Ted Kennedy with coach Hap Day and the 1947 “stovepipe” Stanley Cup.

 

The schedule, set at 50 games for the previous four seasons beginning in 1942-43, was bumped to 60, to this day equaling the largest jump in League history. In 1949-50, teams would play 70 games, unchanged until four games were added in 1967-68 when expansion doubled the NHL from six to 12 teams. The schedule would incrementally grow to 84 games in 1992-93 and 1993-94, but after an abbreviated 48-game season in 1994-95 due to labor issues, the NHL went to 82 games in 1995-96. The League played 71 games last season due to the coronavirus pandemic.  

The Maple Leafs finished the 1946-47 regular season in second place with 72 points (31-19-10), six points behind the defending champion Montreal Canadiens (34-16-10). Toronto dispatched the Detroit Red Wings in one best-of-7 Semifinal, the Canadiens defeating the Boston Bruins in another, each going five games.

Crushed 6-0 by Montreal in the opener of the Stanley Cup Final, Toronto won three in a row, lost in Game 5, then won the championship with a 2-1 home victory in Game 6, lifted by captain Ted Kennedy and goalie Turk Broda.


Goalie Turk Broda with the 1948 Stanley Cup and the Vezina Trophy he won that season.

 

Toronto began defense of its championship in 1947-48 by losing the first official NHL All-Star Game, 4-3, to a team selected from the other five NHL teams. In the opposing dressing room, bitter rivals Maurice Richard of the Canadiens and Ted Lindsay of the Red Wings would barely look at each other, much less speak, in a game that would launch the players’ pension fund.

Things picked up for the Maple Leafs once the puck was dropped for real, finishing first with 77 points (32-15-13), five more than Detroit (30-18-12). The League champions eliminated Boston in a five-game Semifinal, the Red Wings needing six to get by the New York Rangers before Toronto swept Detroit in the Final. 

Again, Kennedy’s scoring (eight goals, six assists in the playoffs) carried the Maple Leafs to their title, Broda outdueling Detroit’s Harry Lumley, who’d become the first NHL goalie to win 30 games in a season.


Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe with the 1947 Stanley Cup and the 1948 championship banner being raised to the rafters of Maple Leaf Gardens.

 

Toronto completed its historic run of three straight championships in 1948-49, improbably clawing its way to the Stanley Cup after a fourth-place regular-season finish. The Maple Leafs battled injuries the entire season and were dealing with the retirements of Syl Apps and Nick Metz. Until the Rangers and Chicago Black Hawks struggled down the stretch, it seemed possible they would miss the playoffs.

Decidedly the underdog after a 22-25-13 season, the Maple Leafs became the first team to win the Stanley Cup with a losing record since the 1937-38 Black Hawks (14-25-9).

Toronto defeated second-seeded Boston in five games, then stunned Detroit with a four-game sweep to claim their third straight title. 

Gordie Howe and Lindsay, who led playoff scorers with 11 and eight points, respectively, (Lindsay tied with Toronto’s Kennedy), had no answer for Broda. The Maple Leafs’ clincher gave them nine consecutive Final-round victories, a streak that would end in the 70-game 1949-50 season when they were bounced in a six-game Semifinal by Detroit.


Maple Leafs captain Ted Kennedy accepts the 1949 Stanley Cup from NHL president Clarence Campbell.

 

But on April 17, 1949, there was only joy in Toronto, Clarence Campbell presenting the Stanley Cup to Maple Leafs captain Kennedy for the third straight year.

“We must have been an awful strain on you because there were times when even we didn’t think we were going to get into the playoffs,” Kennedy told Maple Leaf Gardens fans as he accepted the trophy.

The fuming Red Wings, meanwhile, had all the motivation they needed.

“It was Toronto’s third Stanley Cup in a row and we were getting sick of it,” Howe would say years later, quoted in the 2016 book, “The Toronto Maple Leaf Hockey Club Official Centennial Publication” by Kevin Shea and Jason Wilson.

“Getting swept once was bad enough (in 1947-48), but having it happen in back-to-back years was like a punch in the gut.”

In 1949-50, a more robust NHL now playing 70 games, Howe’s Red Wings began a run of four championships in six seasons.

Photos: HHoF Images

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