“The highs are high, the lows are low in a city like this.” —Zach Hyman
TORONTO – On the other side of this fairy tale lies a nightmare.
No doubt, David Ayres’ fan fiction come true warms our hearts and gives us reason to smile on a Sunday morning.
Yet we must also wonder what it must be like to be paid millions of dollars to put the puck in the net and somehow be unable to do so against a 42-year-old Zamboni driver, a fan of the very shooters he’s competing against, an unpaid volunteer coming in cold and wearing borrowed gear.
“It’s another embarrassing night, right? Embarrassing nights shock the system a little bit, you know?” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said, following Saturday’s 6-3 wild defeat to the Carolina Hurricanes.
Earlier in the week, after consecutive stinkers in Buffalo and Pittsburgh, Keefe had peeled the paint off the walls, pleading for compete, begging for pushback.
Thursday’s dominant 4-0 dismantling of the Penguins was a not only the proper response but a peek into the Leafs’ ceiling. A possible turning point that, in hindsight, looks more like an anomaly.
The Maple Leafs are playing the 2019-20 season in the Upside Down.
As Keefe stood at the podium — tasked with explaining arguably the most inexplicable regular-season loss in franchise history — he looked exactly how Kyle Dubas must feel less than 48 hours before the trade deadline.
“It’s going to be a tough one here for us to regroup from. It’s going to take a little time,” Keefe said, trying his best to project calm in a maelstrom of chaos.
On the outside, it looked like he’d just been yelling. On the inside, we wouldn’t blame him for crying.
“We obviously didn’t handle the circumstances of the game very well,” Keefe said. “From an execution standpoint, from our best people, especially, it was a real tough night like we’ve haven’t seen from them.”
In a game with critical playoff implications — the Canes and Leafs each entered with 72 points, and the one playing tired on a back-to-back left with 74 — Keefe’s Big 4, all $40 million worth of ’em, couldn’t muster momentum on the power-play.
Ayres turned away three Auston Matthews’ shots.
Mitch Marner stumbled over his own feet.
Despite playing 200 feet away from the Leafs’ net, Ayres himself registered more shots on goal (one) in half a game than William Nylander (zero) did the full 60.
“It was a dogs— effort on my part,” Marner said, his voice quavering. “I expect myself to be a lot better in these types of games. And knowing it was a big one, knowing that this team’s gonna come out like that, that’s bulls— on my part.
“I’m taking a lot of myself for this s—. I’ve got to be better. Too many turnovers. Not enough zone time. Just so many bad, bad things happened. I mean, that toe-pick, I don’t think I’ve done that in 20 years of playing hockey. Everything just seemed to go wrong.”
Toronto committed 19 giveaways to Carolina’s seven and got outshot 47-26. Tape-to-tape passes felt like a foreign concept.
After the point Ayres replaced actual NHL goalie Petr Mrazek at 11:19 of the second period, the Hurricanes outscored the Leafs 3-2, outshot them 23-10 and out-attempted them 35-22.
“When the goalie switch happened, I talked to the team and said if we don’t change how we’re playing, they don’t even need a goalie,” Keefe said. “There’re no chances, no shots, there’s nothing happening. They didn’t need a goaltender the way the game was going.”
As it became increasingly apparent that the Leafs were failing to mount Saturday’s gift horse, the Scotiabank Arena’s faithful began booing. Smattered at first, then louder. An ironic “Let’s! Go! Raptors!” chant took root. Ouch.
In Ayres’ most recent competitive game on record, a 2015 old-timers affair versus the Stoney Creek Generals, he had allowed 11 goals on 46 shots in a 14-4 rout. He posted a better save percentage against the Leafs.
“No disrespect to Davey. Awesome guy. But when you have an emergency goalie like that come in the game, I think the consensus is to shoot the puck as much as possible,” Matthews said. “Obviously, the effort wasn’t there tonight, and it’s only up to us to change that.
“A tough week of games against tough opponents, and it just wasn’t there tonight.”
The Maple Leafs have had more look-in-the-mirror moments this season than Vanity Smurf did in nine.
“It’s do-or-die time,” Marner said.
The roster these Leafs are left with after 3 p.m. Monday — when they’ll be riding the company jet to Tampa, to face the hottest team in hockey — is the one they’ll be stuck with.
In what shape they land is anyone’s guess.