Written by: Mark “The Hard Hitter” Ritter
For those of you that remember, a Toronto Maple Leafs/Chicago Blackhawks matchup used to be a regular occurrence, a tremendous “Norris Division” battle that brought fans to their feet. Sadly, much like the Norris Division itself, a tilt between the Leafs and Hawks have, for the most part, become a thing of the past and that's just wrong.
Tonight’s game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Chicago Blackhawks, which is in Chi-town, will be the only meeting between these two historic franchises. In fact, Chicago and Toronto met only once in 2008 as well, a game Chicago won, 5-4 in overtime.
The Hawks, currently 10-5-2, have been one of the NHL’s hottest teams, featuring an enormous amount of young talent, including forwards Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Kris Versteeg and defensemen Duncan Keith, Brian Campbell and Cam Barker, all of which have All-Star potential.
There has been some finger pointing at Chicago’s number one goalie, Cristobel Huet, for his inconsistent play this season. Unfortunately for the Leafs, Huet seems to have found his groove and has been sharp in recent victories over the Colorado Avalanche and the Los Angeles Kings.
A win tonight would give the Blackhawks their third win in a row and sixth consecutive win at Home, where they are 8-2-1 on the season. The United Center has never been an easy place to earn two points, tonight will be no exception.
For the Leafs, tonight’s game provides yet another litmus test to see how they matchup with one of the NHL’s elite teams. Sitting at a paltry 3-8-5 on the season, the Leafs are stuck in 29th spot.
Despite some recent good play, the Leafs are coming off a 5-2 loss to the mediocre Minnesota Wild, a game in which the Leafs seemed disinterested and unwilling to hit. Swedish goaltender Jonas Gustavsson looked shaky against the Wild but, by all accounts, will get the nod as the Leafs starter tonight.
Here’s a news flash for you Maple Leafs: if you don’t want to end up on a stretcher you better be ready to take a hit and dish them out, the Hawks come to play every night and boast one of the toughest lineups in the League. If the Leafs play like they did against the Wild on Tuesday they are going to get hurt, end of story!
A concerted effort on defense from both the forwards and the defensemen will be needed if the Leafs and Gustavsson are going to have any chance of beating the Hawks. Chicago boasts the NHL’s 14th ranked offense and their defense, ranked sixth in the league, has been exceptional of late.
Unfortunately for the Leafs, the defense squad will be without defenseman Mike Komisarek, who, after struggling to find his game at the beginning of the season, was playing better of late and was becoming a valued asset for the Leafs.
Phil Kessel, who has played well in his return and Alex Ponikarovsky, will have to continue their strong offensive effort tonight. That said, if the Leafs keep getting poor efforts form the likes of Jason Blake (two goals on the season), Matt Stajan (three goals on the season) and Nikolai Kumelin (three goals on the season), then Kessel and Ponikarovsky's offensive efforts and the Leafs defensive efforts will be all for not.
The Leafs own the NHL’s worst penalty kill at 71.6 percent. They have the worst goals against per game average at 3.69 and, averaging 2.56 goals per game, their offense sits at 21st overall, all of which has to have the Blackhawks drooling and the mouth and ready to go on the hunt.
So, how did it come to this? Why do the Leafs and Hawks, two of the NHL’s Original Six franchises meet just once this season and just once in 2008? Read on, as I try to make sense of the NHL’s undoing of the once mighty Norris Division.
As a result of realignment, the Norris Division was formed in 1975 and lasted until after the 1992-1993 season, when the Norris Division became a thing of the past.
Originally featuring the Montreal Canadiens, L.A. Kings, Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings and Washington Capitals, the Norris was always known as a tough Division to play in and often featured bench-clearing brawls and fights.
The Norris went through a few changes over the years, first dropping the Capitals and taking on the Hartford Whalers in their place (1979-80) and then receiving a more complete face-lift in 1981-82, adding the Minnesota North Stars, Winnipeg Jets and St. Louis Blues, while dropping the Hartford Whalers, L.A. Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Finally, in 1982-83, the NHL made yet another change to the Norris, featuring what many of us remember the Norris as being: the Toronto Maple Leafs, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues and the Minnesota North Stars.
The Norris may not have been the most skillful Division in all of hockey, but it did feature a ton of lunch pail players, including Toronto’s Wendel Clark and Chicago’s Al Secord. Fighting was the norm in the Norris and much blood was spilled on the ice night after night, in fact, they were some of the most memorable fights in NHL history.
Unfortunately, when the 1992-1993 season ended, the NHL decided to chop up the divisions once again, only this time they took it a step further, eliminating the historic Norris, Smythe, Patrick and Adams Divisions, opting instead to go with a “less confusing” Eastern Conference—featuring the Northeast Division and the Atlantic Division, and the Western Conference—featuring the Central Division and the Pacific Division.
Once again, marketing and realignment was more important than the history of the game. The NHL cited that the majority of the U.S. fans had know idea who James E. Norris, Lester Patrick, Charles Francis Adams or the legendary Conn Smythe were and, therefore, were unable to identify with the Divisions.
So, for the “betterment” of the game, NHL fans lost a little bit of their history and, along with the name changes, lost some beloved rivalries—Chicago vs. Toronto being one of them.
It is a sad state of affairs that the Leafs and Hawks don’t meet more often, then again, given the disparity between the two teams, perhaps it is in the Leafs’ best interest to stay where they are, history be damned!
Until next time,