TORONTO — If this is what clinching a playoff spot looks like, maybe the Toronto Maple Leafs should be cool with the wait.
When the small faction of reporters who weren’t clamouring to hear what the victorious Leafs had to say about Thursday’s wild 6-5 overtime goalfest made their way into the visitors’ room, only one player was available.
Ryan Getzlaf, sitting, waiting, in an air of palpable intensity.
Getzlaf’s Anaheim Ducks had gone down 4-1 to these young, scrappy, house-money, last-place Leafs, grinded back to take a 5-4 lead, then blew it in overtime.
To these ears, the Air Canada Centre had never been as raucous all season as it was Thursday, with the local boys doing good. And the opposing room had never been so quiet.
“We didn’t play a good hockey game tonight,” said Getzlaf.
“We’re not up to the pace of play. We’re holding onto the puck too long, and we’re giving up four goals, five goals, three… that’s way too many goals against to compete in this league,” he added.
This on the eve Anaheim clinched its fourth straight playoff berth and ninth of the last 11 seasons—with two weeks to try to catch similarly slumping Los Angeles for the divisional crown.
Getzlaf had entered the game watching “zero” footage of William Nylander, the much-hyped Leafs prospect, but that was no matter.
“They’re out here trying to prove something,” Getzlaf said of the nascent Leafs. “They’re going to work. Those kids are playing hard, and Mike [Babcock]’s got them playing a good system. They’re buying in.”
Getzlaf described the Ducks’ own buy-in as “weird,” coming out of a training camp with new personnel, even though the Western Conference finalists ripped through the preseason 6-0-1.
“The weird vibe, if anything, was that Corey [Perry] and Getzy weren’t together all of camp,” Anaheim head coach Bruce Boudreau offered. “That might’ve been the weird thing.”
But Getzlaf, who was not partnered with Perry on this night either, says it was something less tangible.
“It was a mental mindset. We came out of training camp with a weird thing going on in the room with aspects of buying in and doing things properly on a nightly basis,” Getzlaf said.
Around Christmastime, the defence-first Ducks got their head on straight and stormed up the standings, flexing their muscle in the corners and on special teams.
That’s vanished of late. Anaheim’s surrendering of 10 goals in consecutive games to the lottery-bound Leafs and Canadiens marks their worst back-to-back defensive showing all season.
“Malaise is a good word,” says Boudreau, less disturbed than his captain. “We’re going through a funk is another word.”
Sami Vatanen has been injured but should return in a game or two. Ryan Kelser, their best penalty killer and faceoff man, missed his first game of the year Thursday due to a personal emergency. Then Kevin Bieksa left the loss in Period 2 with an upper-body injury.
“Pretty hard to talk about playing shorthanded when we’re playing that team over there, and they have 11 guys up from the Marlies,” Boudreau said. “I can’t use that as an excuse.”
Getzlaf won’t cop out either. The message to his teammates: Show up. Execute the system.
“It’s professionalism. We go through so many things through a year. Everybody has families,” he said. “You gotta show up. (Kesler) needed to go be with his wife and his family. It should’ve been an opportunity for other guys to step up.”
This is a Cup favourite, a team that won’t or shouldn’t settle for its worst performances coming in March against what should be two of the NHL’s most nonthreatening lineups.
But nothing less than a championship series will do in Anaheim. They don’t jump around and hug for moral victories. Even veteran Shawn Horcoff, the only other Duck to later join Getzlaf in facing the media, was low-key, talking big playoff picture as he marked his 1,000th career game with a two-assist, plus-3 performance.
For Ducks fans, here’s hoping this is simply a lull before the second wind.
Anaheim isn’t as desperate as it was in late November, when its stars were dim and some of us were asked to prepare “Bruce Boudreau fired” drafts. Y’know. Just in case.
“We had to start our push an awful lot earlier than most teams,” Boudreau said, sounding practical, not rattled. “We’ll get it back before the playoffs.”