The Toronto Maple Leafs don’t want their mid-March mini crisis to be about emotion, about feeling.
They want to get the narrative under control just as they want to get their D-zone coverage under control.
Last week’s defensive debacle should be about attention to detail, tidying mistakes and investing a hard day’s work. Not a referendum on this team’s heart.
So, after getting blown out by a depleted Ottawa Senators squad on Hockey Night in Canada Saturday in prime time, their fourth consecutive soft effort before a partisan crowd, one could see how a spurt of raw Garret Sparks honesty could rankle those with more seniority.
“We need more emotion from everybody. We need people to get angry. We need people to step up and get mad and take it personally,” said the backup goalie, after appearing in all three of the week’s losses and giving up nine of the Leafs’ 23 goals allowed during the span.
Due to Frederik Andersen’s sudden bout with mortality, last week was the most Sparks had contributed all season.
The goalie had just spent 60 minutes under siege after commissioning a custom St. Pats mask and pad set for Saturday’s affair. He had made 38 saves in the 6-2 humbling, including a couple beauties. He claimed ownership for the Sens’ third and fourth goals, both fired off the stick of Magnus Paajarvi, but there were four other pucks that got past him.
“Maybe I should start overthinking these starts and just play some hockey,” said Sparks, who is expected to get a rather quick chance at redemption Wednesday in Buffalo.
“It’s been challenging. Me and Fred both have been trying to make saves for this team — that’s all we ever try to do. We know we’re missing some guys [Jake Gardiner, Travis Dermott, Kasperi Kapanen], but we also have some pretty good players in the lineup in their place, so we’re not going to use that as an excuse.”
The backup goalie’s comments struck a nerve for a fan base beginning to panic and a franchise that insists it’s not.
“A little adversity never hurt anyone” would be the organization’s message of choice to the public.
Had, say, Auston Matthews or John Tavares or Morgan Rielly demanded more passion, the echo might ring a little differently.
Any reporter who tweeted Sparks’ headline comments got ratio’d to Trumpian levels. A significant portion of Leafs Nation would rather the first-year full-timer stop the pucks than the presses.
Other critics point to heart or GM Kyle Dubas’s speed-over-sandpaper roster construction.
The isolated clips of a smiling William Nylander fraternizing with the enemy don’t help the perception that the Leafs might be letting complacency creep in.
Not unlike Zach Hyman after the letdown on Long Island, the source of a public outcry for more attitude was an unlikely one.
But Sparks is in the room. He has a better finger on the pulse than those of us who wait for the doors to open and the expletives to clear. And he has more at risk by deviating from the script.
Truth is, outside of coach Mike Babcock, we’re not certain whose hand is on the rudder of this unsteadied ship.
Boston’s veteran leadership core of Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, meanwhile, is regarded league-wide as one of the best.
We asked Mitch Marner whom the club looks to, who pipes up in those miserable intermissions when the Leafs are down multiple goals to a lesser light, when they look like a group that’s already conceded home ice to the Bruins, up four standings points with 10 games to go.
“All of us. All of us talk in that locker room. We all know what we need to do,” Marner said Saturday night. “It’s not just one guy speaking up, but we’ve got to start doing it.”
It wasn’t so long ago these same Leafs were fun and loose. They comported themselves with a swagger that now feels elusive.
On the same night Toronto laid an egg in Ottawa, the hockey world watched Marchand flexing a Conor McGregor strut after scoring a critical overtime winner, then tweet out his own celebration.
They saw former Leafs backup Curtis McElhinney quietly win his 18th(!) game for Carolina, raise his save percentage to .916, and the Hurricanes gleefully play a few silly sheets of curling.
Yes, Jake Gardiner is injured. Yes, Frederik Andersen is human. But this is no time to pucker.
Pressure busts pipes. Pressure forms diamonds.
What’s it gonna be?
Smack in the middle of hell week, the faded dynasty that is the cap-crunched Blackhawks came through Toronto, simultaneously a symbol and a warning of what the Leafs could become.
Jonathan Toews — whom Babcock called “the conscience” of Chicago’s three championships — spoke about the importance of finding your best hockey in the days leading up to the post-season, how there’s no switch that can be flicked overnight.
The Hawks, Toews lamented, stumbled into the dance in 2017 and were swiftly swept by the Predators.
It’s not about seeding. It’s about feeling.
During a quieter moment, before hell week but not much, Tavares — our best guess for these Leafs’ conscience — said something to a couple of reporters that felt like he was driving to the heart of the matter.
“We want to go on a deep run, so you see what other teams are doing and understand what the landscape is,” Tavares said.
“To get to where we want to get to, you’re gonna have to get outside your comfort zone. And you’re going to have to get to certain levels you may not have known you could get to.
“I don’t think you realize how difficult it is. That’s part of the journey. That’s part of building a team and being part of a team.”