TORONTO — In the place it mattered most — the scoreboard — a little order seemed to be restored around the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night.
But even after putting an end to an ugly three-game losing streak there were still signs of possible discontent.
Most notably, the Maple Leafs decided to buck tradition by skipping the customary salute to fans following a 5-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning. During the last couple seasons every win at Air Canada Centre has been celebrated in the same way: With players skating to centre ice and raising their sticks in the air.
At least every win until this one.
While one member of the team told me afterwards that the group was simply looking to change things up and didn’t intend to offend the paying customers, the gesture certainly left plenty of room for another interpretation.
It has been a trying season in Toronto, with fans often booing the team and throwing sweaters on the ice repeatedly during games. Already the Leafs have been beaten by three or more goals in their building on four occasions.
They couldn’t even escape the scrutiny during a tough loss last weekend in Buffalo, where a fan tossed a full can of beer onto their bench and saw it explode on a couple players.
When they arrived at the rink on Thursday, they were only two days removed from the low point of the year — a 9-2 loss to Nashville here that James van Riemsdyk claimed led to a lot of “over-analyzing” in the city.
Despite all of the swirling negativity, the Leafs bounced back with a much better effort against Tampa and rode a three-goal second period to victory. The team’s top line was particularly strong, with van Riemsdyk scoring twice and Phil Kessel looking extremely dangerous throughout.
“The other night it was nine goals and we were embarrassed by it and there was nothing we could do to take it back,” said coach Randy Carlyle. “But we sure didn’t want for something bad to happen to our hockey club tonight and I think (the players) were rewarded with their hard work.”
“It was an example of what kind of team we can be when we stay disciplined to our system and manage the puck,” added defenceman Cody Franson.
Basically it was the kind of victory that should provide some much-needed pressure relief, especially since the Leafs are right in the middle of the playoff race with a 10-8-2 record. That fact has been almost entirely lost in the public discourse during seven weeks of wild highs and lows.
Yet, even after Thursday’s win, it was hard to ignore what the post-game celebration — or non-celebration — seemed to suggest. There is still a lot of frustration lurking beneath the surface here.
Carlyle often refers to the endless analysis of the team as “white noise” and there’s no question that some players have difficulty tuning it out.
“(We have) the most passionate fans in the world here and a lot of coverage for our team, so you know there’s going to be a lot of people giving their two cents — deserved or not,” said van Riemsdyk. “We’ve just got to be ready to just not worry about that and worry about what we’re doing here.”
The players appeared to make a last-minute decision to skip the salute to fans after beating the Lightning. On the video, Kessel can be seen saying something to captain Dion Phaneuf while the team congregated around winning goalie Jonathan Bernier before then skating along the procession and guiding some of his teammates off the ice.
Below: Watch Kessel speak to Phaneuf post-game
Franson, in particular, seemed caught off-guard by the change in routine. He had already started to glide towards the neutral zone when he saw the rest of the Leafs heading straight for the dressing room.
Maybe it was nothing more than a superstitious act meant to change Toronto’s slumping fortunes — as one veteran player suggested — but it’s not likely going to alter the atmosphere in this building, especially if the winning doesn’t continue.