TORONTO – Who knows why positive energy comes and goes?
The Toronto Maple Leafs are carrying heavier expectations and have been weathering their fair share of injuries lately. Those are among the theories circulating around a team that has often seemed to be missing the unbridled joy and enthusiasm that carried it to a surprising playoff berth last season.
It’s a difficult thing to measure, but the players can sense it. They were a bit lethargic at times while negotiating a difficult stretch of travel in December. On Thursday, they found an unlikely spark when Nazem Kadri dropped the gloves with Joe Thornton off the opening faceoff and sent a charge through Air Canada Centre.
“He’s not afraid of anybody,” said teammate Auston Matthews. “We’ve seen him fight some guys that are a lot bigger than him and he definitely holds his own. I think the way we look at it is it kind of gets everybody going.”
The Leafs brought an immediate push. Their young stars were dancing, they were generating scoring chances and the building was abuzz. It was fun.
“When we start like that, I think it kind of gives everybody confidence,” said Matthews, who tipped home his 18th goal to open the scoring. “It gets everybody pretty energized and we can continue that throughout the game. When we do that, we seem to usually come out and play well and typically win the game.”
The 1-0 lead over the San Jose Sharks lasted just 31 seconds. They saw a 2-1 advantage disappear when Frederik Andersen handed a goal to Chris Tierney late in the second period. Toronto had to kill off a penalty in overtime and survive a five-round shootout, but it eventually pulled out a 3-2 victory.
When it was all said and done, the players pointed back to the energetic opening minutes.
The fight arguably benefitted San Jose as it much as it did the Leafs – the Sharks certainly got some laughs after seeing a thatch of Thornton’s beard left on the ice – but that doesn’t lessen the positive impact it had on the home side.
This season has been more of a grind than last one. Head coach Mike Babcock has spoken often about how much tougher it is for players to do a second tour of the league with the novelty worn off. We’ve seen the weight lengthy scoring droughts had on Mitchell Marner and William Nylander.
Even Kadri found himself in the midst of his career-worst stretch with 12 pointless games until having a Marner shot deflect in off his leg during a second-period power play. As a veteran among a still-youthful group, he made a point of keeping his head high.
“You try to have that mental toughness to be positive,” said Kadri. “It’s easy to be a good teammate and to be positive when things are going well, but I think you really find out about somebody when they’re not going so well and they’re still able to bring that right mentality.
“I just tried to be positive with it. I’ve been around long enough to understand that that’s going to turn around and luckily it did tonight.”
It certainly felt like progress after the way San Jose manhandled the Leafs during an Oct. 30 visit to the Shark Tank. The 3-2 final score that night disguised the fact Toronto was completely dominated.
In the rematch, the Leafs and Sharks basically played to a saw-off – with the five-on-five shot attempts and scoring chances coming in just about even. Toronto flirted with some danger, but Babcock believes that’s a mark of a team still learning how to win.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for the guys there in San Jose – [Joe] Pavelski, [Logan] Couture, Thornton, [Marc-Edouard] Vlasic, [Brent] Burns – those guys are good players and good leaders and have been doing it for a long time,” he said. “Their team is organized and plays right, they have real good specialty teams. It was a good test for us.
“We need to get going at home, we need to get some momentum. I thought we had good energy the last two games, we’ve got more energy, but you’ve also got to get in a rhythm and win.”
The Leafs weren’t thrilled to hit the halfway point earlier this week at 48 points. By Babcock’s math, that puts them on pace to squeak into the playoffs rather than cruising in comfortably.
Perhaps the visit from the Sharks will serve as an antidote following a December slumber. It felt like something to build on.
“We were ready right from the drop of the puck as you could see with Naz,” said veteran winger Patrick Marleau. “It was a good battle out there all night long. We stuck with it and found a way.”