When I was a kid, there were essentially fans of three teams in Winnipeg: the Jets, the Habs and the Leafs. (You'd get knifed for wearing an Oilers or Flames jersey; the Canucks were laughable on the ice, both with their play and with the awful "V" uniforms, so nobody would have bothered.) Jets fans made up, I don't know, 85% of the total. The Habs had a following, which wasn't surprising - they'd won 8 of 12 cups between the 1967 expansion and the dissolution of the WHA, and they'd been in the Stanley Cup finals more than two-thirds of the time since WWII ended. The Leafs also had a following with an average age of about 92 who'd talk your ear off about Connie Smythe or Dick Irvin or Hap Day or Punch Imlach. Or something like that - the Jets sold out the Winnipeg Arena every time the Leafs were in town, but I never met one person who'd admit to being a Leafs fan.
That wasn't too surprising, given that the Leafs didn't have a winning season in the 1980s (the only team in the league to do so.) The modern Leafs decided to challenge this record of futility by posting losing records for the first six seasons after the lockout, joining only the New York Islanders in that quest. Even the Atlanta Thrashers had a winning record in one season during that period. But miracle of miracles, as of last week, the Leafs are above .500, while the Jets decided that their New Year's resolution would be to stop putting the puck in the net, which has led to a Minnesota Wild-esque 16-game streak where they've been out-scored 42-22 in regulation.
Still, the bookies have the Jets favored ever-so-slightly at home tonight. All the Jets need to do to win is get a handful of power-plays: the Leafs' penalty-killing has been comically, epically bad for the last seven years despite ever-changing personnel both on the ice and in the front office. The Jets, despite their recent scoring woes, are also doing better than the Leafs in the possession department, though neither team has the kinds of numbers that would get them out of the first round of the playoffs.
Anyways, here's tonight's lineup:
And for the visitors:
Some guys. Maybe Wendel Clark and Darryl Sittler. With Mike Palmateer in goal. Or one of the many other non-prospects who was destined to save the Leafs over the last 40 years. Does anyone really even care who plays for the Leafs? Maybe the announcers will tell us why Phil Kessel's biorhythms lead sports stenographers to write things like this every few weeks:
Depression: "We have always resisted the temptation to join the group that considers the Leafs’ acquisition of Phil Kessel from Boston (for what now looks like back-to-back top five draft picks) a colossal blunder. But that temptation grows stronger by the day. Kessel’s scoring struggles, along with the Maple Leafs’ woes, also grow. Kessel has scored just once in his past 10 games and has gone without a goal in seven."
Manic: "It has at times been as if all conventional wisdom has been turned on its ear. The disastrous Phil Kessel trade – Toronto giving up two first-round draft picks and a second-round pick to Boston, which went on to win the Stanley Cup without him – now has to weigh the fact that Kessel is leading the league in scoring with 21 points in only 13 games."
Regardless, Ron Wilson will be there, looking like the least-fun father-in-law ever, yelling at Luke Schenn. Brian Burke will be in his box smashing things. Final score: Jets 3, Leafs 2...(Because the Jets aren't going to score four goals, we know that much...)