Outstanding personal success was achieved by Honoured Member Borje Salming, but the ultimate symbol of team success the Stanley Cup eluded him through his 17 NHL seasons. The 1977-78 post-season gave Salming his closest sniff at Lord Stanley's Cup and provided Borje with the highlight of his career. "I'd have to say it was the year when we upset the New York Islanders in the playoffs."
The Leafs enjoyed a solid regular season, finishing third in the Adams Division with 92 points during 1977-78. From top to bottom, Toronto had performed well. Darryl Sittler led all Leafs in scoring, potting 45 goals and collecting 117 points; good for third in the NHL's regular season. Linemate Lanny McDonald scored 47 times and his 87 points placed him tenth in the league. Salming was third on the team, with 16 goals and 60 assists for 76 points. Other notables included Ron Ellis, who scored 26 goals, Tiger Williams with 19 and Borje's defense partner Ian Turnbull, who scored 14 times and added 47 assists. In goal, acrobatic Mike Palmateer kept the Leafs in most games.
Toronto opened the post-season facing the Los Angeles Kings, who had accumulated 77 points during the regular season. In Game 1, which included a fight-filled second period with a title bout between Tiger Williams and L.A.'s Bob Murdoch, the Leafs whipped the Kings 7-3. Salming collected a second period goal and assist. During that contest, Lanny McDonald's patented moustache was dripping with blood after he broke his nose.
Game 2 in the best of three preliminary round ended in a 4-0 Leaf shutout in which Borje collected an assist. The Maple Leafs thus earned the right to next face the powerful New York Islanders.
The Islanders had topped the Patrick Division with a breathtaking 111 points during the 1977-78 season. In a classic case of understatement, Borje admits, "We were the underdogs."
Game 1, on Long Island, went to the Islanders who topped Toronto 4-1. But Game 2 was much closer, going into overtime before the Islanders pulled out a 3-2 win on Mike Bossy's game-winning goal.
Toronto surprised New York in Game 3, shutting out the Islanders 2-0 in Toronto. Borje, a workhorse at the best of times, logged better than forty minutes of ice-time in that contest.
The Leafs won the next game, this time a 3-1 decision in Game 4. Borje's first period goal opened the game's scoring. But drama unfolded at the eight-minute mark of the second period. "I left the Gardens in a wheelchair, my eyes bandaged, after Lorne Henning accidentally clipped my right eye with the blade of his stick," recalls Salming. That was it for Borje that spring. Although his sight was saved, he was unable to compete again in that year's playoffs.
Without Salming, Toronto still competed well against the team from Long Island. Tied 1-1 at the end of regulation, Bob Nystrom broke the deadlock at 8:02 of overtime to give the Islanders the Game 5 win.
Toronto scrapped and summoned every bit of courage and skill they could muster in Game 6. The results went their way a 5-2 win packed, like the rest, with high sticks, slashes and fighting majors.
It all came down to Game 7, played on Long Island. Denis Potvin put his Islanders up 1-0 at 5:18 of the first with an unassisted tally. Ian Turnbull knotted the game at 3:42 of the second. The third period was tighter than a mouse's ear no goals, no penalties.
Overtime. Sudden death. The victor moved one run closer to the Stanley Cup. At 4:13, Lanny McDonald took a pass from Ian Turnbull and buried the puck past Chico Resch in the Islanders' goal. The Leafs had defeated the mighty Islanders! Toronto had won!
For Toronto fans, that was the season's highlight. To many, that is the greatest goal a Toronto Maple Leaf has scored in decades. But it really was as good as it got for Toronto. The Montreal Canadiens, who had been a juggernaut recording 129 regular season-points, made short work of the Leafs. Game 1 ended in a 5-1 Montreal win. Game 2 was a 3-2 win for the Canadiens. Montreal walloped the Leafs 6-1 in Game 3 and ended the Toronto Maple Leafs' season with a 2-0 shutout win on May 9, 1978. Borje sighs and states, "The Canadiens were too much for us. They easily won the series four games to none." The Canadiens then met the high-flying Boston Bruins and ended that series in five games to capture the Stanley Cup.
No one, including Borje Salming, knew that that was as good as it would get for Toronto until the Doug Gilmour years in the early nineties. "I always gave my heart for this team (the Leafs)," mentions Salming. "We had great players and they were traded. We had good teams, with Darryl (Sittler) and Lanny (McDonald), but those guys were traded."
"This season, 1977-78, was the closest I came to the Stanley Cup," adds the Hall of Fame defenseman. "I would have some international success and play in several all-star games but, though satisfying, they couldn't erase the disappointment of never bringing a winner to Toronto."
Kevin Shea is the Hockey Hall of Fame's Manager of Publishing and Editorial Services.