TORONTO — Jake DeBrusk appears more concerned with the fact he hasn’t appeared on the score sheet yet than being public enemy No. 1 in this city.
The 22-year-old sophomore is coming off a fantastic 27-goal campaign, which itself arrived on the heels of a breakout post-season. The crown jewel of the 12 post-season goals DeBrusk scored last spring, of course, was his Game 7 rush winner that simultaneously burned Jake Gardiner and Frederik Andersen and eliminated the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Fast-forward a year, and DeBrusk is making Toronto headlines again, this time for his physical play helping bait nemesis Nazem Kadri into a suspension-worthy cross-check to the head late in Saturday’s Game 2 victory in Boston.
DeBrusk isn’t quite certain he’s comfortable being tagged as the player Leafs Nation loves to hate.
“Yes and no. I’ve never really been that before, enemy No. 1,” DeBrusk said, following Monday’s morning skate. “No matter what the distractions are off the ice, we agreed as a group to keep it internally. That helps, especially when things get out of hand.”
Blame the officials. Blame Kadri. But DeBrusk did his share to contribute to the things-getting-out-of-hand aspect of a wild Game 2.
He drew blood by elbowing Travis Dermott, clipped Kadri with a knee-on-knee hit, and dangerously but cleanly hit respected veteran Patrick Marleau near the rounded glass at the bench — the final straw, judging by Kadri’s actions.
“I was just trying to backcheck on the player. I saw it was [Marleau]. It’s playoff hockey — anybody can be hit. I’ve been hit by him a couple times,” DeBrusk explained.
“I heard a loud noise. I kinda turned to see what happened. He got up; it seemed like he was fine. I wasn’t necessarily trying to hurt him. I’m not out to intentionally hurt guys. That’s what happened. I turned and looked, and what happened, happened.”
What happened was Kadri cross-checking DeBrusk in the head and earning Monday’s in-person hearing in New York.
“At the moment, I was surprised just in general. The league’s gonna handle that. It’s one of those things, I don’t feel the need to comment on it. I think everyone saw what happened, and that’s how I’m leaving it,” DeBrusk said.
“I had to lick my wounds a little bit after Game 1 and understand that’s how the series is getting played. It doesn’t change my game.”
In the wake of Saturday’s Thunderdome-like affair, DeBrusk was the target of many a mean tweet, most notably by ex-NHLer Sean Avery.
DeBrusk saw Avery’s rant. He read some of the vitriol.
“Off the ice, in social media, I’ve been getting comments and certain things like that that aren’t necessarily the nicest,” said the Edmonton, Alta., native. “It’s playoff hockey. There’s lots of passionate fans here in Canada, especially Toronto. I’m Canadian. I understand that. That’s all I gotta say about that.”
Despite undergoing medical tests post-game, both DeBrusk and defenceman Torey Krug, who left Game 2 after a hard, clean Jake Muzzin hit, will both dress in Game 3.
“He got a good lickin’ on me. It was a good hit,” said Krug, less than 40 days removed from a concussion.
“You’re always worried. But luckily enough when I got back to the room, I checked all the points on the check list and felt good enough. Obviously for precautionary reasons I wasn’t able to come back, but just glad to feel good enough right now.”
Defenceman Steven Kampfer draws in on the third pair for injured rookie Connor Clifton, who also exited early from Game 2.
DeBrusk says players work their entire lives for these moments. He wants to make an impact as an offensive contributor. But make no mistake, his head will be on a swivel.
“That’s the identity of our team: We don’t shy away from physical contact,” DeBrusk said.
“I don’t expect anything to change on that front. I think it’s gonna be a hard-fought series no matter what. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens tonight.”
Finally, something both fan bases can agree on.